Viewer Guide: Dr. Strangelove and The Company Men

October 16, 2020 | Richard Peña


Tonight’s classic is Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the legendary satirical black comedy from 1964 directed by Stanley Kubrick.

Released at the height of the Cold War, just fifteen months after the Cuban Missile Crisis and two months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Strangelove dared to pose a profoundly disturbing question in darkly comic terms: could the deranged logic of a madman trigger the start of an unintentional nuclear war? Surely that could never happen…yet as personified in lunatic form by Sterling Hayden as Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper, the answer is a horrifying “oh yes it could!” Convinced that the Soviets have poisoned the American water supply with fluoride to pollute the nation’s “precious bodily fluids,” General Ripper has gone rogue and ordered the fleet of B-52 bombers under his command to attack their targets deep inside Russia, unstoppable except by a secret code known only to General Ripper. Desperately struggling to discover the code before it’s too late is RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a British exchange officer brilliantly portrayed by Peter Sellers in just one of his three bravura performances in the film. In the starkly futuristic Pentagon War Room, the mild-mannered US President Merkin Muffley—once again, played by Sellers—tries to make sense of the chaotic briefing from the gung-ho General Buck Turgidson, played by George C. Scott in another virtuoso comic performance. And contributing an expertise that only deepens the magnitude of the crisis is the bizarre Dr. Strangelove himself, the increasingly maniacal ex-Nazi nuclear war scientist played by Sellers at his most inspired, whose national loyalties are dubious at best. With a cast of characters like these, can the world be saved in time from complete and utter destruction? Don’t bet on it.

Also featured in devastating character roles are Keenan Wynn as Colonel “Bat” Guano, Peter Bull as the Russian ambassador, James Earl Jones as a bewildered B-52 engineer, Tracy Reed as General Turgidson’s versatile secretary, and Slim Pickens as Major “King” Kong, whose cowboy skills are ultimately put to a most unusual use.

Stanley Kubrick had long been interested in doing a film about nuclear war, and had originally considered adapting Peter George’s novel Red Alert as a conventional drama. But the more he read about the nuclear arms build-up, the more Kubrick felt a totally different approach was needed to convey the utter insanity of the situation. In addition to the three roles Peter Sellers plays in the film, he was also originally cast to play Major “King” Kong, but Sellers begged off, telling Kubrick that a fourth role would simply be too demanding—plus he wasn’t sure he could fully master a Texas drawl. Although the movie was tightly scripted, Kubrick encouraged Sellers’ improvisational touches, including Dr. Strangelove’s maniacal self-stabbing hand. However, Sellers’ performance as President Merkin was initially so comic, Kubrick had difficulty controlling the film crew’s on-set laughter. In addition, Kubrick also decided to cut the pie fight finale originally planned to end the film. When Kubrick learned of the nearly identical plot of director Sidney Lumet’s film Fail Safe, he sued the rival production for plagiarism, despite the fact that Fail Safe was a straight-forward dramatization with an entirely different tone. Nonetheless, Kubrick’s tactic succeeded in delaying Fail Safe’s release by nine months, insuring that Dr. Strangelove was the first to grab the attention of critics and audiences.


The Company Men (2011)

Tonight’s indie is The Company Men, a 2011 drama directed by John Wells.

Meet the executives of Global Transportation Systems: Ben Affleck is Bobby Walker, a 37 year-old hot shot sales executive; Tommy Lee Jones co-stars as CFO Gene McClary; and Chris Cooper plays senior manager Phil Woodward, a longtime GTX employee who started out on the factory floor. They’re all living upwardly mobile lives in handsome suburban McMansions—and in Bobby’s case, complete with a sporty Porsche. But a glance at the cable news headlines reveals it’s early 2008, and the year’s devastating recession is already underway. Wall Street is in a free fall, stockholders are panicking, and jittery GTX staff eye each other warily any time HR Manager Sally Wilcox, played by Maria Bello, enters the room. When the inevitable happens and Bobby finds himself abruptly out of a job, he’s confident it won’t be long before he’s climbing up another corporate ladder. But as his time at an outplacement services office deepens from weeks to months—along with his depression—Bobby has to accept some tough facts about which direction his personal road to recovery will really lead him.

Also featured in supporting roles are Rosemarie DeWitt as Bobby’s patient wife, Craig T. Nelson as GTX’s steely CEO, Eamonn Walker as another struggling job-seeker, and Kevin Costner in a cameo role as Bobby’s sarcastic blue collar brother-in-law.

Director John Wells’ extensive television career includes producing and writing credits for such hit series as E.R.The West Wing and Third Watch, but The Company Men marked his feature film directing debut. Wells’ subsequent theatrical directing credits include August: Osage CountyLove and Mercy and Burnt.

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