Thursday, 10 December 2009

You Can’t Fight In The War Room.

Dr Strangelove, or: how I learnt to stop worrying and love the bomb is one of my favourite Kubrick films. There are a few I still haven’t seen (shame on me), and I do enjoy them all - other favs would include A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket and, yes, Eyes Wide Shut, but if I’m in the mood for something thought provoking but not as confrontational or psychologically disturbing as the other titles mentioned, Strangelove is it.

The film takes place during the Cold War. Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) goes a little cray-cray over the idea of the communists attempting to take over the world using the flouridation of water and instructs a bunch of bombers holding at fail-safe positions just outside of Russian radar cover to drop their atomic loads on their targets, of which they are all no more than two hours away. The idea of how he manages to pull this off is quite complex (considering the President (Peter Sellers) quite rightly mentions that he believed he was the only person with the authority to push the button on nuclear warfare) so I won’t go into it here, but he manages it and it is exceedingly difficult to recall them, especially when Ripper has cut himself off from all outside communication and instructed the men on the base to shoot to kill all who come within 200 yards.

Captain Mandrake (Sellers again), on loan from Britain’s Royal Air Force, provides a comical foil to Ripper’s character, and is ultimately responsible for the recoil of most of the planes - most of them. But it is within the War Room at the Pentagon that most of the narrative takes place, and provides for the majority of the comedy in this very dark film. Through the Russian Ambassador and phone calls to the Russian Premier (which are wildly entertaining - anyone who has seen the film will always remember the initial ‘Hello Dimitri’ conversation and subsequent ‘I’m as sorry as you are, Dimitri!’ interaction) the discovery of the Doomsday Machine (due to be announced on Monday) is found. The Doomsday Machine is automatically triggered upon the detonation of a nuclear weapon on Russian soil, and results in a mammoth amount of nuclear weaponry being unleashed, resulting in fallout that will render the earth’s surface unlivable for about a century.

Peter Sellers earns most of the laughs playing three roles: the President, Mandrake and the eponymous Dr Strangelove, a German advising the US on such things as the Doomsday Machine. His three performances are very funny, and perfectly rendered. And while the film itself is very funny, it is in equal parts quite disturbing. Particularly at the time, I imagine (1963), when the Cold War was in full swing and the threat of nuclear war was keeping people up at night, the possibility of something similar to the Doomsday Machine and the fact that it could be set off by a renegade officer with the right codes and a grudge must have hit very close to home.

It does, however, have a new relevance now, with increasing nuclear powers in such states as North Korea and Iran. Indeed, the invasion of Iraq being, in policy at least to begin with, about weapons of mass destruction, the film brings these same feelings up in the minds of the modern viewers. With the ‘civilised’ Western world holding a massive amount of nuclear arsenal in case of these nations developing their own, you do end up with a stand-off - if you use yours, we’ll use ours. No sane mind could really want to unleash nuclear war, but with diplomatic relations souring and sanctions imposed, do people really have that much to lose? Like all good wars (where religion plays a part), your own immediate safety is mitigated by the belief that you’re going to win. Unlike previous wars, we’re dealing with weapons capable of not only wiping out hundreds of thousands of people in an instant, but causing such environmental devastation as to truly destroy the world.

By housing this in a comedy, Kubrick has done exceptionally well, providing an in-point for everyone watching. The closing images of exploding nuclear warheads are almost beautiful, especially with the accompanying soundtrack - something that in itself is terrifying. (And is it just me, or do others think that the mushroom clouds of exploding atomic bombs is really aesthetically pleasing? I don’t like thinking it, but they’re kind of pretty, if you ignore their explicitly deadly nature, no?)

It’s probably the scariest comedy I’ve ever seen, and made scarier by the comedy. This is a serious issue, people! We shouldn’t be laughing about it! But when you’re not laughing, in a situation such as this, all that is left is to cry, and that’s not going to get us anywhere, is it?

5 stars. Sellers’ incarnations are sublime, the rest of the casting is spot on, and with lines like it has you just can’t go wrong.

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