It was January 1964, and the Cold War was still raging between the United States and the Soviet Union. Even as President John F. Kennedy had been shot to death two months earlier, the country was still dealing with the Communists across the Atlantic and past Europe. With both countries on red alert, the potential for all-out nuclear war always seemed possible.
Then Stanley Kubrick took the paranoia of the era and dismantled it to satirical pieces.
With inspiration from Peter George's serious novel Red Alert, Kubrick's dark comedy Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb follows the activities of the U.S. government and Air Force when they deal with a call from within to attack the Soviet Union. Kubrick reunited with Peter Sellers, his comedic co-star from his 1962 adaptation of Lolita, getting him to star in three different but iconic roles. He also enlists the talents of Oscar winner George C. Scott, legendary character actors Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn & Slim Pickens, and even James Earl Jones in one of his first roles.
At Burpleson Air Force Base, General Jack D. Ripper (Hayden) has decided to pull a move to attack Russia - but no one really knows why, since neither side of the Cold War has pulled any moves of attack. Despite this, Ripper orders his bombers to go into attack mode - including a squadron led by the colorful Texan Major T.J. "King" Kong (Pickens). One officer suspicious of Ripper's actions is British Royal Air Force Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Sellers), the general's right-hand man - especially when he hears no specific orders of war. It's through his confronting Ripper when Mandrake reveals the general's motivations - and in his mind, the need to stop him.
Back in Washington, President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) and his Joint Chiefs of Staff are holed up in the War Room to find out why the order was called - especially since Ripper may have gone over the President's head to issue the order. One man involved in the conversation is Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), a war-hungry general who sees this potential accident as a possibility of raising the stakes of nuclear annihilation - and who seems to be more interested in being with his mistress (Tracy Reed). The Russian Ambassador (Peter Bull) gets called inside to assist matters, a scientific advisor named Dr. Strangelove (Sellers) with potential ideas of a post nuclear-war world, and then there's a "doomsday device" being created by the Soviets.
The idea of a comedy about nuclear destruction seems foolish on paper, let alone insane. Dr. Strangelove was made in the middle of one of the world's most intense periods - and Kubrick used the real-life terror of the Cold War to mine satirical gold in a topic one would find little if any humor in. Kubrick enlisted Peter George (the author of the film's source material Red Alert) and American satirist Terry Southern to pen the raucous screenplay - peppered with some of the most memorable lines ever included in any classic comedy. The dialogue shouts throughout with scientific and military insight, outrageous behavior from grown men, and the connections involving sex and war. The ensemble cast delivers every line of dialogue with serious-minded intent, even if Kubrick's method is anything but. The director showed the pure madness of what nuclear annihilation would bring, and displays usually mature individuals at points of immaturity and the lacking of clarity.
Peter Sellers pulls off a virtuoso tour-de-force with three characters, all of them different from each other. He is first seen as Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, forced to deal with the madness inside General Ripper's office - determined to get the information needed from him to recall the planes and end the exercise. Sellers pulls off a wiry, nervous tone for the British officer, while maintaining a sense of sanity throughout the tense situation. As President Muffley, Sellers delivers some of the film's most memorable dialogue in an American accent - including his now-famous phone conversation with the Soviet Premier, largely improvised by the actor himself. Then in the same War Room, Sellers pulls off a German genius in the title role with a hand that just doesn't know when to stop moving - but also smart in how the world could look if the doomsday device explodes. The Oscar nomination he received for Best Actor was beyond earned and deserved - especially with creating three roles that stood out in their own respective ways.
George C. Scott is a comic riot as General Turgidson, an immature boy stuck in a military man's body - who seems to be more intrigued by sex and violence than anything else important in the world. With the accidental occurrence of an all-out attack, Turgidson looks to go beyond it and take advantage in the Cold War - and Scott pushes for this in an equal manner, with some great physical comic movement. Sterling Hayden provides a brilliant deadpan tone to General Ripper, who seems to be serious in what he says even if the whole message is anything but. While Keenan Wynn shows up in the last half-hour as Army Colonel Bat Guano, his presence provides another military man with a serious attitude that somehow comes off funnier than it should - and yet it works.
Slim Pickens is a scene-chewing powerhouse as Major Kong, who provides some of the film's more comic moments on the Air Force bombing run. One scene involving a reading of a survival checklist is simple in its hilarity (even though part of that dialogue was dubbed later, due to the assassination of President Kennedy, with Vegas referenced instead of Dallas). Pickens also gets his face on one of Kubrick's most iconic images - comic or dramatic - with a ride that must be seen to be believed. The squadron scenes also feature James Earl Jones in an early role as one of the fighter pilots.
Besides Kubrick's work behind the camera as director and co-screenwriter, he brought in some great creative behind-the-scenes talents. Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor provides some great black-and-white imagery that benefits the dark satire (also proving Strangelove would have failed in color); composer Laurie Johnson riffs off the standard "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" for his limited but effective role; and even legendary title designer Pablo Ferro displays his simple yet genius work - by sketching the titles out in a jagged and uncertain manner. Yet the real off-screen star of Kubrick's work was designer Ken Adam, who pulled off the memorable sets - especially that of the gigantic War Room, with its brilliant map of targets in the warfare of the Cold War on display.
2014 will be the 50th anniversary of Dr. Strangelove's original release, and it still holds up even in the imagery and look of its time. Nuclear weapons remain one of the world's major threats, with Iran and North Korea largely rumored to creating plans of attack with use. Other countries (especially the United States and its allies) still have nuclear capabilities that could be used for destruction if in the wrong hands. Kubrick pulled off a stunning satirical masterpiece, while managing to keep a serious eye on the future of humanity. In Dr. Strangelove, he is supported by possibly the finest hour of Peter Sellers' career - and possibly the darkest and most perfectly surreal ending of any of his films.