Dr. Strangelove has entered popular culture as practically a synonym for black humor and outrageous satire, but does anyone talk about it much? This would be a strange development under any circumstance, but given the loaded subject matter and the fact that it was made by someone as famous as Stanley Kubrick, the lack of discussion is striking. Is it because we’re going through a period when reality has become such a sick joke that satire is pathetically redundant? Or is it because the Kubrick myth makes meaningful evaluation almost impossible? Since so many people uncritically accept his films as “genius,” does asking what is remarkable about them risk ridicule?
Kubrick’s oeuvre is sometimes divided into two periods, pivoting between Strangelove on one side and 2001: A Space Odyssey on the other. Watching it again recently, I was struck by how much a product of the “early” Kubrick Strangelove is, perhaps his crowning achievement in that mode, and for that reason, a dead end. The primary difference between the periods is pacing. With the arguable exception of Spartacus (which was not a personal project, and over which Kubrick did not have final control) his early films are marked by rapid forward movement, tart, abrasive action sequences (such as the hand-held camerawork in Strangelove) and razor-precise editing. Scenes last only as long as is necessary to ram home narrative points of sledgehammer subtlety. Story and character are paramount; the physical feel of the settings is largely unimportant. Beginning with 2001, however, the priorities shifted, so that look, feel and texture became primary.
What remains consistent throughout Kubrick’s career is self-conscious technique combined with a heavy irony that totters perilously on the edge of the ponderous. Much of Strangelove, for example, is undeniably funny, but leaden, and no one’s idea of understatement. George C. Scott’s winning performance as Buck Turgidson is brilliance itself, a flamboyant portrait of an American military macho idiot giddy with testosterone. Peter Sellers’s justly famous triple performance as the President, Group Captain Mandrake and Strangelove makes your jaw drop in wonder at “how did he do that?” Both actors make exaggeration into a form of refinement. They choose to be out of control, honing each gesture and verbal quirk into jewel-like studs of absurdity.
Which, frankly, demonstrates one of the limitations of Kubrick’s method. Satire may have no obligation to be light-fingered. Nonetheless, this approach, alternately belabored and ostentatious, threatens to call way too much attention to itself. Only the pacing keeps the results from becoming overbearing. Kubrick cannot linger as he was to do in his later work without risking the alienation of his audience. (A problem that A Clockwork Orange grapples with throughout.) Strangelove, in short, is very much a director’s equivalent of Sellers’s impersonations, an inspired, showy technical exhibition in which we gasp at the audacity, but more in admiration than affection. It is just too clever by half to be anyone’s favorite.