As a child of the Cold War era — you know, one of those kids who actually went through all the “duck and cover” and “don’t look at the blast” training exercises and got to tour a fall-out shelter on a school field trip at the age of 7 or 8 — I’ve only recently been able to find Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) funny. It’s been described as a nightmare comedy, and it’s certainly nightmarish, but it took about 40 years of distance to make it much of a comedy for me. But it is one — and an amazingly subversive one that resonates over the years, even while some of the particulars have changed. (In 1964, it was practically a given that many of our top scientists — and Russia’s top scientists — were not only German, but quite possibly ex-Nazis, making the title character with his wayward sieg-heiling arm a logical comedic extension of reality.)
The film presents a scenario (with a disclaimer that it couldn’t happen, which no one quite believed when it came out) in which a nut-case general (Sterling Hayden) starts World War III, and makes it impossible for the U.S. to call it off, resulting in a kind of comedy of errors. The president (Peter Sellers in one of his three roles) tries to palm off the impending attack to the Soviet Premier as a regrettable faux pas — despite the fact that retribution for a nuclear strike is the only possible response from the Russians. What makes the film so compelling — beyond the comedic performances, the canny symbolism equating war with sex, and the rich black-and-white photography — is that it’s unafraid to take its scenario right on into the abyss. It’s as startling today as it was then. Catch it now before it becomes too relevant to be funny again.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke