By Ciaran Kovach
Directed by the legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, ‘Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ is a masterpiece of Cold War cinema. Released in 1964, at the time when the nuclear annihilation of humanity was a very real possibility, Kubrick created a film, which was and continues to be extremely entertaining, but also very enlightening about the nature of the Cold War.
The film boasts a great number of impressive performances, including but not limited to the crew of a B-52 bomber, who provides a relatable, human face to the film’s plot and a pair of USAF generals that powerfully portray the worst aspects of Cold War leaders and arguably, humanity as a whole. A combination of sublime writing and first-class, highly expressive acting results in not a single weak main character across the board.
The standout performances of the film are delivered by Peter Sellers, who plays three main characters, namely a hapless RAF officer, the US President and a Nazi scientist working for the US by the name of Strangelove. While Seller’s delivers an excellent performance in all three different roles, his third role stands out in particular. While Doctor Strangelove enjoys little screen time, Seller’s electric acting in the role and his masterful dialogue allows Strangelove to surpass every other character in the film. By the end of the film, you will be in no doubt why his name is in the title.
‘Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’, is at its heart, a black comedy. The satirical, absurdist edge that permeates the film remains constant throughout and the film boasts more than its fair share of hilarious lines and gags. Just below the surface of the humour however, is a collection of very powerful themes and questions.
Kubrick uses the medium of humour to explore the absurd, cold and terrifying nature of Cold War politics and nuclear strategy first and foremost. The attitudes and ideas of the Cold War agitators are laid simply in front of the audience, delivered contextually, eloquently, in detail and in such a way as to not be confusing to the average viewer. I would go as far as to say that the film should be near essential viewing for anyone wishing to gain an understanding of the Cold War. Ideas and concepts that may seem completely absurd on first mention become quickly understandable and even logical to the audience. Also, beyond themes relating to the Cold War, Kubrick explores others themes, such as masculinity and the base morality of humanity.
Kubrick’s narrative is not only entertaining and thought provoking, but he also succeeds in weaving a web of genuine tension throughout the film, resulting in some truly nail-biting scenes near the end of the movie. All in all, it is difficult to find a film that boasts better acting and writing.
With regards to cinematography, while the visuals, audio and special effects will obviously feel dated to a modern audience, the film never feels ‘fake’ and Kubrick’s excellent camera work compliments the acting talent to display. Kubrick also deliberately makes little use of music during the film. This to the film’s credit as it increases the level of immersion and shows that the film simply does not require music as a crutch to support scenes that would otherwise feel awkward.
Given how excellent the film is, it is extremely difficult to find anything to criticize without nitpicking from a modern film standpoint. As such the only real criticism I can make is that Kubrick could have given more attention to the Soviet Union during the film, but given that Kubrick clearly had an American audience in mind for the film, his focus on the US side of the Cold War is understandable.
To conclude, ‘Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ is in my mind one of the best films of all time, both from an entertainment and intellectual standpoint. It is a fitting monument for both, the late Stanley Kubrick and the late Peter Sellers.