AFI Top 100: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

In 2007, the American Film Institute revised their previous 1998 list of the 100 best American films of all time. This column will explore my thoughts on some films I’ve selected from this list, mostly following along with the Unspooled Podcast, which inspired my journey to complete the AFI Top 100. You can also follow my progress with my ranking and watchlist. This week’s film is Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), #39 on the list.

Okay, let’s rip this band-aid off quickly: I don’t love Dr. Strangelove. It didn’t really work for me on my initial plunge into Kubrick’s filmography when I was 12, and it hasn’t really worked for me since, though for different reasons. It comes down to it being numerous movies all in one: political satire, dark comedy, slapstick comedy, and a beat-the-clock thriller. Kubrick does an admirable job of bringing everything together, and making what many other people believe it to be: a totally coherent, hilarious, and extraordinary film; but, despite some brilliant stretches, I’ve never understood the overwhelming acclaim. The technical (and I assume extensively researched & very accurate) protocol for the events unfolding – the chain of command, the process of readying a bomber to release its payload, etc. – make for a gripping, tense thriller, but it does little to add to the satirical or comedic side of the film.

The film works much better in its comedic moments, especially when it avoids a cheap punchline (the coke machine spraying the officer in the face nearly ruins the entire bit for me, but otherwise that scene is hilarious) and plays the absurdity with a straight face. George C. Scott is pitch-perfect and Peter Sellers is wonderful, though his most notable role as the titular Dr. Strangelove is my least favorite of his three performances in the film – too exaggerated for the mostly dry humor in the War Room, though him battling his own hand is undeniably hilarious, divorced from context. The visual style is also breathtaking to look at; Kubrick’s characteristically gorgeous cinematography (courtesy of Gilbert Taylor) and dynamic use of shadows in the stark black-and-white photography make the film marvelously vibrant.

Does it belong on the list?

Even with Kubrick’s impact on the industry and his diverse filmography spanning a plethora of genres, including four of his films on the list is excessive. Prior to starting this column, I had already nixed Spartacus and emphatically kept 2001: A Space Odyssey (A Clockwork Orange is still to come), and though I think there’s room on the list for a sharp political satire, Dr. Strangelove isn’t it for me, so no, cut it and make room for Eyes Wide Shut or Barry Lyndon.

AFI Top 100

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