Monday, July 26, 2004

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements)

There are huge gaps in my movie knowledge. It comes from not renting movies very often, even when there were good video stores near me And after moving to a place just a few blocks from the Brattle... Well, now there's a chance to see something for the first time on the big screen with an audience, which is always preferable to video. Looking at those holes I'm slowly filling in, Kurbrick is the among the largest, and what I have seen, 2001 aside, has left me cold.

That coldness, however, works in his favor when doing a black comedy. The detachment that has seemed a hallmark of Kubrick's work is what you need to make the audience laugh at the possibility of nuclear war. It also doesn't hurt to have Peter Sellers on hand, playing multiple roles. I think he actually gets fewer laughs in the title role than in his other two, though the ones he gets are enormous. It's the deadpan, only-sane-man-in-the-room reactions as President Merkin Muffley and Captain Lionel Mandrake that got me, including a couple of Bob Newhart-style phone calls to the Russian Primier.

The success of the movie comes in large part from Kubrick's screenplay, written with Terry Southern and Peter George, author of the original novel Red Alert. The writers manage the neat trick of using the comedy and thriller elements to reinforce each other: The stakes being played for add edge to the jokes, while the idea that the entire world's fate may rest in the hands of people so humanly - and hilariously - imperfect increases the suspense.

The performances are often broad, but don't necessarily start out that way. In particular, George C. Scott's General "Buck" Turgidson starts out as a bureaucratic caricature and devolves into a raving pinhead, while Strangelove himself is legitimately sinister while providing useful information when he first appears. The closest thing to a weak link is Slim Pickens as Kong, the B-52 pilot, and even there, it's not that Pickens delivers a poor performance, but that he has no straight man.

The visuals for this movie is meticulous, as is to be expected from Kubrick. The sets are designed to create striking images, but unlike with lesser directors, they also seem very functional - consider the cramped B-52, or the war room with its ominously hovering circular light fixtures as examples - they're atmospheric but also look like they could be practically used for their stated purpose. The black-and-white film stock gives the film a documentary feel, even as the lighting and very static cameras remind us of a stage play.

Fifty years after its initial release, Dr. Strangelove may not quite seem relevant, but it has also avoided appearing dated, naïve or agenda-driven. It has an internal logic that it never subverts, and the kind of attention to detail that keeps it looking good long after its contemporaries look cheap and tacky.

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