Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb - 45th Anniversary Special Edition

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: May 29, 2009
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Director

Stanley Kubrick

Release Date(s)

1963 (June 16, 2009)

Studio(s)

Columbia (Sony)

Review

In case you haven’t guessed by its title, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is black comedy at its finest.  The film wraps itself smartly in the trappings of the Cold War, and cleverly reveals just how truly absurd it all was.

But when this Stanley Kubrick classic first premiered in 1963, it took an unsuspecting public by surprise.  The arms race was in high gear.  People took those silly “duck, cover and don’t look at the flash” civil defense films seriously, and home bomb shelter construction was considered a growth industry.  So it goes without saying that folks didn’t quite know what to make of Dr. Strangelove.  It was nominated for four Academy Awards, but it was many years before the film came to be widely appreciated.  The more we’ve come to understand the sheer magnitude of the military and political folly of the time however, the more brilliant Strangelove seems to become.

Here’s the plot in a nutshell: During the height of the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force maintained an around-the-clock airborne strike force of B-52 bombers, poised to deliver nuclear annihilation upon the Soviet Union at a moment’s notice.  Aboard one of these bombers, Major “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) and his crew receive the unthinkable – the “go” code to initiate Wing Attack Plan R.  It seems that, back at good old Burpelson AFB, their wing commander, General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), has gone stark raving mad.  Believing that the government is ignoring a Communist plot to poison the water supply with fluoridation, Ripper sets out to “protect our precious bodily fluids” by launching a nuclear first strike.  This, he hopes, will force ineffectual President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) into action.  When Muffley learns that he can’t recall the bombers, he’ll have to order an even bigger strike to overcome the inevitable Soviet counter-attack.  Of course, when confronted with this news, Muffley does nothing of the sort, preferring instead to inform a drunken Soviet Premier that one of his commanders “went and did a silly thing.”  He even invites the Soviet Ambassador into the top secret War Room, much to the chagrin of his gung-ho military advisor, General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott).  The Ambassador soon reveals that the Soviets have developed a Doomsday Machine, that will automatically destroy all life on Earth if it detects an American attack.  As things unravel in Washington, back at Burpelson, a British exchange officer (Captain Mandrake – also Sellers) attempts to reason with Ripper, knowing that he’s the only person with a prayer of stopping this insanity.  Meanwhile, aboard his B-52, the no-nonsense Kong is determined to complete his mission, come hell or high water.  And in the end, it’s up to the film’s infamous Dr. Strangelove (Sellers yet again) to devise a last clever plan for “preserving a nucleus of human specimens”...

Sellers is terrific here as Muffley and Mandrake, but it’s as the off-kilter Dr. Strangelove, a wheelchair bound ex-Nazi scientist, that he really shines.  With his lop-sided hair, Strangelove is an obsessive, maniacal figure, for whom Heil-Hitlering is an involuntary response.  Scott’s blustering performance is equally entertaining as the gum-chewing Turgidson.  Fans of classic Disney live-action films will quickly recognize Keenan Wynn as Colonel “Bat” Guano.  And yes… that is James Earl Jones among the bomber crew (in his first feature film role).  But it’s for Slim Pickens’ goofy turn here that I really love this film.  He’s absolutely hilarious as cowboy-turned-pilot Kong: “If this thing turns out to be half as important is I figure it just might be, I’d say that you’re all in line for some important promotions and personal citations when this thing’s over with.  And that goes for every last one of ya, regardless of yer race, color or yer creed!”

It’s also worth noting that Dr. Strangelove is loaded with sly, tongue-in-cheek jokes.  Almost every character name is the film is some kind of clever sexual innuendo or pun.  You’ll smile at the “Peace is our Profession” signs around Burpelson AFB... as American soldiers engage in a firefight across the base.  You might spot that the pin-up girl in Kong’s Playboy is Turgidson’s secretary.  Among the books in front of Turgidson in the War Room is one labeled World Targets in Megadeaths.  Even the Soviet Premier’s name is a joke... Dimitri Kissoff.

Some might be surprised by just how well black and white films upgrade to high-definition, but the improved resolution of Blu-ray (in this case based on a 4K restoration) really makes all the difference.  Detail here is excellent from start to finish.  The image exhibits great contrast, with outstanding blacks.  Grain has always been an important part of the visual texture to this film – it’s preserved here nicely without becoming a distraction.  This is a great B&W, 1080p presentation.  [Editor’s Note: The film is presented here in a steady 1.66:1 aspect ratio.  (So yes, those slight black bars are supposed to be there.)  The original theatrical presentation varied between 1.33 and 1.66.  In recent years however, we’re told that Kubrick’s associates (who manage his estate) have become more comfortable with the 16x9/1.78:1 aspect ratio of HD displays, and they believe that Kubrick himself – if he’d really had the chance to look into it – would have preferred his full frame films to be presented on home video (in HD) at a steady 1.66 to take better advantage of the 1.78:1 frame.  So that’s the reasoning for the decision.]  The new TrueHD 5.1 audio mix is also quite good, offering the expected improvements in clarity and resolution.  For those who prefer it, however, the original mono audio is here too.

Most of the extras from the previous single-disc DVD and 2-disc DVD special edition have carried over to Blu-ray, including all of the previous documentaries, the interview with former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and the split-screen piece with Sellers and Scott.  Sadly missing are the advertising gallery and (as expected) the film’s theatrical trailer.  The latter omission is particularly frustrating, because the original trailer for Dr. Strangelove is one of the more fascinating you’ll ever see – it’s very Kubrick and very in keeping with the style of the film.  Many Kubrick fans will want to keep the DVD in order to retain it.  Thankfully, the Blu-ray makes up for this (a little) by offering an interesting new PiP viewing mode called The Cold War, which features on-screen trivia and video interview clips with historians and defense experts, including Thomas Schelling (formerly of RAND, who wrote the original article that sparked Kubrick’s interest in the subject), Richard Clarke (a counter-terrorist expert for the Clinton administration), Daniel Ellsberg (also formerly of RAND and consultant to the Kennedy administration), George Quester (a University of Maryland professor and expert on nuclear proliferation) and David Alan Rosenberg (a “nuclear strategy” historian, Temple professor and ex-military).  In addition, the disc will connect to the Net via BD-Live, with specific features TBA.  It also comes packaged in a Digibook featuring 32 pages of photos and film essays by Richard Tanne and Travis Baker.  (Unfortunately, the excellent Roger Ebert essay from the 2-disc DVD is nowhere to be found.)  On balance, the Blu-ray extras are more sidewaysgrade than upgrade (from the DVD), but the new material is still welcome.

Dr. Strangelove is a supremely funny film and is definitely one of my all time favorites.  It’s probably not to everyone’s tastes, but if you like dark comedies and biting satire, absolutely don’t miss it.  It’s arguably one of Kubrick’s best works, so it’s worth seeing for that reason alone.  Sony’s new Blu-ray is worth having, though as always I do miss that trailer.  (I continue to hope that, one day, Sony will get the message.)  But the Blu-ray at a good sale price, slip your old DVD into a paper CD sleeve and tuck it into the BD book, and you’ll be fine.  Just be sure to pack your survival kit and watch out for deviated pre-verts.  And don’t forget... there’s no fighting in the War Room.

- Bill Hunt

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