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DR. STRANGELOVE
Anniversary Special Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn
Director:  Stanley Kubrick
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1Dolby 2-Channel Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  95 Minutes
Release Date:  November 2, 2004

“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here!  This is the war room!”

Film ****

Stanley Kubrick was a filmmaker constantly ahead of his time, and no piece is as singularly indicative of that fact as his legendary black comedy, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  It was a movie that dared to poke fun at nuclear war presented to a country that was still terrified of it:  we had scarcely exhaled our sigh of relief after the Cuban missile crisis when Kubrick flashed his brilliant, darkly funny and deeply disturbing masterpiece on the screen.

It’s a film that suggests not only that an accidental nuclear war is possible, but probably even unstoppable by the men in power who are either too zealous, too insane, or too caught up in the throes of diplomacy to do anything about it.  If you don’t believe that, there are three scenes you really need to see:  General Jack D. Ripper (Hayden) delivering his paranoid, unbalanced spiel about preserving our “precious bodily fluids” to British Group Captain Mandrake (Sellers), while his Air Force base is under siege by…the Army; the President of the United States (Sellers again) making a nervous call to the Russian Premier about the error (“one of our commanders…well, he went and did a silly thing…”); and General Buck Turgidson (Scott) delivering facts and figures about a hypothetical nuclear war, where he dismisses 10 to 20 million American casualties as “getting our hair mussed”.

Here’s how the events unfold:  with our bombers holding at their fail safe points outside of the Soviet Union, General Ripper orders “wing attack plan R”, sending the planes rocketing toward their pre-determined targets inside Russia with two nukes apiece.  In an emergency meeting in the war room, the President demands to know how such a thing could happen, since he is, in theory, the only person authorized to order a nuclear strike.

Plan R, as it turns out, is an emergency plan designed in case the Russians wiped out Washington and the President in a sneak attack:  rather than escape retaliation because of lack of proper command, a lower order official could order a retaliatory strike.  The problem?  No one at Ripper’s base, nor the men in the planes, are aware that there’s been no first strike by the Russians!

This leads to the phone calls to the Premier (some of the funniest scenes in motion picture history), and the eventual attack on Ripper’s base by another Army outfit ordered to force the recall code from him so they can stop the planes before they drop their bombs!

A further complication:  the surprise announcement of a doomsday machine developed by the Russians.  It turns out, they have buried bombs loaded with a special radioactive element designed to destroy all human and animal life on earth if their country is attacked.  There is no way to disarm it…the idea being to invoke a fear in her enemies to launch an attack.  If the planes carry out their missions, it could mean the end of humanity.

One person with an idea is Dr. Strangelove (Sellers in yet a third role), a wheelchair bound German scientist with a bizarre plan for preserving the race in mine shafts.  It includes a ratio of 10 women to every man for re-population purposes.

When watching the film for the first time, it’s actually easy to overlook some of the absurdity in lieu of the tension and suspense.  There is a real threat presented in the film, and moments of almost unbearable apprehension as the clock winds down.  It is, in fact, the very nature of a black comedy in that it makes you laugh while fully recognizing that you probably shouldn’t be laughing.

The film is not only a comic and suspenseful triumph; it marks a technical one for Kubrick as well.  Without cooperation from the Air Force, who proclaimed that events such as the ones depicted in the film are not possible, Kubrick had to design everything from imagination.  The interiors of the bombers?  All Kubrick’s brainchild, along with the procedures and technical jargon that went along with them.  The look and feel are entirely convincing throughout.

Dr. Strangelove also marks Kubrick’s earliest experimentation with music as a device of ironic counterpoint.  The famed opening shot of a B-52 bomber refueling in mid air plays to the strings of “Try a Little Tenderness”.  The wounded bomber struggling to find its target while not knowing it shouldn’t is accompanied by the heroic “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”.  The film’s final images play to the song “We’ll Meet Again”…I’ll leave it to you to discover the irony behind that one.  But this unique use of music served Kubrick’s goal of altering the narrative rules of film with each of his project:  the score doesn’t have to exist in harmony with the images on screen to be effective.  Conflict can be equally so, and sometimes even more memorable.

The film offers a tour-de-force performance by Peter Sellers, with three of his most memorable roles in one movie.  The image of Dr. Strangelove has become something of a military fiction staple, with his uncontrollable hand, accent, and dark glasses.  But for me, it is the much calmer President that steals the show, as he tries to prevent an international emergency with the utmost decorum and politeness.  Excellent also are Hayden and Scott as the zealous generals, and Slim Pickens as Major “King” Kong, who gets one of film history’s most memorable exits.  (Film legend has it that Pickens was never informed by Kubrick that the film was a comedy, which if true, lends a whole new dimension to his terrific performance.)

It took our nation a while to learn to laugh at Dr. Strangelove.  Now, on the other side of the Cold War and with the Iron Curtain down, we can enjoy the film’s dark humor with a little less guilt, but with just as much thought and consideration as before.  Nuclear war is still a reality, and all we can do is continue to hope our leaders maintain their sanity enough not to go off and do a silly thing like that.

BONUS TRIVIA:  This movie marks the feature film debut of James Earl Jones.

Video ***

Finally DVD fans have a true widescreen presentation of Dr. Strangelove.  I never quite understood the so-called "preferred" multi ratio versions of previous releases that toggled between full screen and about 1.66:1.  This disc claims 1.66:1, but it's closer to 1.85:1.  At any rate, the framing looks better.

The overall presentation seems cleaned up a bit as well...I now realize that some of the problems I complained about in earlier reviews were stock footage-related; shots of mushroom clouds and aerial photography bits were a bit grainier and scratchier because they came from other sources.  Apart from that, the black and white photography looks better now, with more true contrast and better detail levels than before.

Audio ***

It took a couple of tries, but now Columbia Tri Star has done right by this film in the audio department, with the choice of Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 remixes.  The DTS is especially good, with better use of subtle and ambient sound effects and more dynamic range.  The music sounds better than ever.  There's not a lot of use of the rear stage, but the overall clarity and range makes for a marked improvement.

Features ***1/2

This anniversary edition contains a few new bonuses, starting with "No Fighting in the War Room", which is a half hour political look at the movie featuring interviews with Roger Ebert, Spike Lee, Robert McNamara, James Harris and others.  It's essentially an attempt to parlay Dr. Strangelove into modern times, trying to say that our current administration mirrors characters in the film and other such paranoia (someone should tell Spike Lee that Condi Rice isn't married).  "Best Sellers" takes a look at the comic genius of the legendary star, while an interview with Robert McNamara fleshes out his appearance in the new documentary with more Q&A...what he has to say about the Cold War being "hot" is quite fascinating.

Though not mentioned on the box cover, the disc also includes the extras that were featured on the first special edition release of this movie:  the 15 minute “Art of Stanley Kubrick from Short Films to Strangelove”, and the more in-depth 45 minute one “Inside the Making of Dr. Strangelove”.  The two together are quite informative and feature interviews with some of Kubrick’s crew and associates (including one time partner James B. Harris).  There is an original trailer (one of the best ever, in my opinion) as well as two bonus ones.  There is a 10 minute split-screen interview with both George C. Scott and Peter Sellers (where you can’t hear the questions, just the responses), an ad gallery, talent files and production notes, plus some good animated menus with sound.  

Rounding out is a booklet with a new essay by Roger Ebert and photos from the film.

Summary:

Dr. Strangelove is a one of a kind masterpiece from a one of a kind filmmaker.  It’s a comic nightmare that dares to invoke laughs about one of mankind’s greatest fears:  nuclear war.  With a top notch script that is both funny and suspenseful, unforgettable images and a brilliant array of performances, Stanley Kubrick’s cold war satire is a must see for any cinema lover, and this new anniversary edition is the best possible way to experience it at home. 

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