Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a fantastic satirical black comedy centered around the potential destruction of the human race. Released less than two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film functions as a way to cathartically laugh at what could have easily been our demise. It has many other targets in mind, and it hits almost all of them over its tight, 94-minute running time. This is one of the funniest movies ever made.
What’s odd is that the film has actually been adapted from a novel, Red Alert, written by Peter George. The novel was a serious one about nuclear war written in 1958. George — along with the film’s director, Stanley Kubrick, and a third man, Terry Southern — has adapted his own novel into the screenplay for Dr. Strangelove. The entire point has been changed. The film is far funnier than the novel. Let this be a film that we can point to when we talk about adaptations not “getting” the tone of the source material; it can work out for the better if that’s not what happens.
The film opens with a title card ensuring us that the events we’re about to see could not and would not happen in real life. The real army is smarter than the one in the movie, we’re assured. We then cut to an Air Force General, Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who has issued an order to 34 of his bombers: they are to drop nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union. They’re already past their fail-safe points, and they’ve been ordered to tune out their radio to anything not containing a specific code — which only Ripper knows. In the sky, we follow one specific plane and its crew, although we also flip between Ripper and the misdoings in the base, as well as a “War Room” at The Pentagon.
From here, we follow The Pentagon’s attempts to stop the bombers, the corrupt Ripper’s defense of his base, and the crew piloting a single plane carrying out an attack that they shouldn’t be doing. Sometimes, jumping between three different areas like this can get confusing and lacks a point; here, it stresses how little communication the groups have, and how poorly this plan was thought out.
There are far more areas satirized here. The entire concept of nuclear deterrence and mutual assured destruction gets a lot of the film’s focus in its final third. Single gags and lines fill in the rest of the time. Hardly a moment goes by when someone isn’t doing something that’s going to make you laugh. This is a movie that makes you chuckle at the start and burst at the seams by the time it ends. You almost want to re-watch it again right away to see if you missed any jokes.
Dr. Strangelove is almost infinitely quotable. You can take the majority of the lines — or parts of them — and figure out ways that they would work in day-to-day life. Of course, only people who saw the movie would get what you’re saying, but that applies to all quotable comedies. The point is that it has so many great lines, all of which will likely make you laugh while you’re watching it, and they’ll make you want to share them with others. It’s infectious, I say!
What’s most surprising about Dr. Strangelove is how it still does work quite well as a thriller. As we’re watching and listening to these people try to stop the bombers from reaching their targets, a great deal of suspense is generated. The situation they find themselves in is terrifying to think about; it often appears that there is no way to save humanity (from its own stupidity). And, perhaps there isn’t; I wouldn’t want to spoil the film.
I don’t think it’s possible for one to talk about Dr. Strangelove without discussing the performances. The first actor who has to be mentioned is Peter Sellers, who takes on three roles in the picture. He gets to play a taunting Group Captain serving under General Ripper, the straight-faced President of the United States, and the titular Doctor Strangelove — who is a wheelchair-bound ex-Nazi scientist. Sellers creates three distinct characters here; if you weren’t aware that he had all three roles, you might not figure it out until the credits began to roll. He’s hilarious in this movie.
He isn’t the only one who is either great or hilarious. George C. Scott plays a General in the War Room, and is over-the-top in every capacity. Tens of millions of casualties are acceptable to save face in his eyes. Sterling Hayden’s paranoid Brigadier General works well while playing off against Sellers’ sillier and more comedic Group Captain. And Slim Pickens is the pilot of the bomber that heads into Soviet territory. He, gets a scene or two to steal before it’s all said and done.
There are few movies funnier than Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The black comedy hits the mark, the satire is poignant and powerful, the performances are all great, and there are so many quotable lines that it’s hard not to want to repeat them to the next person you talk to, assuming the opportunity arises. This is a great movie and it comes very highly recommended. You’ll have a fantastic time watching it (and likely re-watching it).