The 1960s was a good decade for director Stanley Kubrick. In fact, it marked the height of his financial and critical success. He opened the decade on a bittersweet note with the sword-and-sandal epic "Spartacus" (1960), the kind of adventurous entertainment that audiences ate up but a trying experience that led Kubrick to forsake Hollywood for England, where he would have greater creative control over his projects. There, he directed the highly controversial and popular "Lolita" (1962) and closed the decade with "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), the science fiction trip that confounded critics and the public alike. In between those two, however, he directed what was probably his edgiest film of the 60s and one that has remained almost constantly pertinent throughout the past 45 years: the 1964 Cold War satire "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." Effectively encapsulating the American public's insecurities about a possible nuclear attack while recognizing the sheer absurdity of the logic behind nuclear war, "Dr. Strangelove" is both an outrageous send-up and a terrifying speculation of war-related politics.
The film presents a delirious doomsday fantasy in which a paranoid Brigadier general, Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), orders a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Using a military plan designed to be used only if the President and the top-ranking commanders have been killed, Ripper further oversteps his authority by shutting off entry to his Air Force base and commanding his officers to shoot at anyone who comes near. Meanwhile, this breach of power stirs up a kerfuffle at the Pentagon, where U.S. President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) holds an urgent meeting with his military commanders, including General "Buck" Turgidson (George C. Scott) over how to go about solving this problem. He also invites Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky (Peter Bull), who becomes an immediate subject of suspicion to Commie-hating Turgidson. With B-52 air bombers scheduled to hit their targets within the hour, the men debate over what to do to prevent World War III from beginning.
The situation only worsens when the Soviet Premier reveals over the phone the existence of the dreaded Doomsday Machine, a computerized device designed to blow up the entire planet should the Soviet Union be hit by a nuclear bomb. Unaware of the Machine's existence, as the fun-loving premier was saving its announcement for a surprise, President Muffley turns to Dr. Strangelove (also Sellers), a brilliant military strategist and former Nazi who explains that the Doomsday Machine was designed as a deterrent to keep other nations from using their nuclear weapons and is programmed to go off if any attempt is made to deactivate it. With little idea of what to do, the politicians continue to fight amongst themselves as they struggle to come up with a plan to stop the impending destruction of the world.
It has oft been recounted how Stanley Kubrick originally intended the film to be a stark and serious rumination on the possibility of nuclear war, basing it on the sober novel "Red Alert" by Peter George. While working on the screenplay, however, Kubrick conceived of several humorous situations that could rise out of such a disaster and later decided to rework the entire story as a comedy, much to George's chagrin. Kubrick and George worked together on the script in its initial form as a thriller, but renowned satirist Terry Southern was brought in to work on revisions. The resulting mixture is appropriately offbeat, like a morbidly sick Looney Tunes short with its cartoon heroes struggling impotently to keep hold of a hot potato. The characters in this film are not so much human beings as extreme caricatures of human imperfections, among them aggression, arrogance, and most explicitly, impotence. Watching these people figuratively claw at each other over issues they have neither sufficient control over nor an adequate understanding of is one of the most genuinely entertaining experiences you will have with a Kubrick film.
At its most daring, "Dr. Strangelove" suggests that sexual inadequacy is responsible for all of the violence in the world. The film's key figure is General Ripper, whose hatred for the Soviets is brought about by his inability to face his own impotence, instead concocting a paranoid theory about a Communist conspiracy to "sap and impurify" America's bodily fluids. The rest of the film, then, blatantly presents the resulting violence as a substitution for sexual virility. Kubrick lays the phallic imagery on thick, from the famous opening image of a military aircraft refueling to the even more famous image of bomber pilot Major "King" Kong (Slim Pickens) straddling a falling bomb as it makes its way to an explosive climax. The military leaders depicted in the film who should be protecting their countries give in to childlike mentalities and schoolboy fascinations with both sex and violence. When they can't have one, they turn to the other, and as Major Kong's final exit demonstrates, it is even more satisfying if they can have both at the same time.
That such an outrageous notion caught on as well as it did with the public can only be attributed to the timing of the film's release. By the early 1960s, tensions over U.S. involvement in Vietnam were rising, and the American public had lived with the threat of possible Soviet invasion for enough years to have become almost numb to the idea. The absurdity of "Dr. Strangelove" allowed audiences to laugh about the very threat that constantly loomed over them, but it was far from escapism. As infantile as its characters are portrayed to be, the film never loses sight of the gravity of the political and military situations imagined within. It is a visually bleak movie, filmed in murky black and white and in oppressively closed-in spaces. Only the spectacular War Room set seems to expand far beyond the camera's line of vision, but its dim and expressionistic lighting conceals its inhabitants rather than illuminating them. For all of his wild send-ups, Kubrick smartly never makes light of nuclear war itself but of the people in command, emphasizing their incompetence and lack of self control. The sobering thought behind all the lunacy onscreen as that the lunatics are real. It is this notion that not only made "Dr. Strangelove" a success in 1964 but has kept it a relevant text to this very day, under all administrations and in times of both hot and cold war.
A final word must be put in for the film's ensemble cast, led by the incomparable Peter Sellers. He memorably plays three vastly different roles, starting with the no-nonsense Group Captain Mandrake, Ripper's executive officer. This is ostensibly a straight role, with Sellers the perfect foil for Hayden's sexually frustrated Ripper, and later for Keenan Wynn's Colonel "Bat" Guano, who is on the lookout for "deviated preverts." His second role as the U.S. President affords him perhaps the film's single funniest moment in Muffley's phone conversation with the intoxicated Soviet Premier, a brilliant one-man bit for Sellers. His third and most physical role is, of course, the eponymous, wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove, whose right hand seems to have a mind of its own. The rest of the cast is letter perfect. Slim Pickens fully embodies the patriotic cowboy who goes down with his bomb. Sterling Hayden effectively channels his noir antihero as the disillusioned Jack Ripper. Peter Bull's Russian ambassador is perhaps the film's most underappreciated gem. And George C. Scott comes about as close as we may get to a human Daffy Duck as the blustery man-boy General Turgidson.
Sony's Blu-ray edition of "Dr. Strangelove" is presented in full 1080p high definition in an anamorphic 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio. There has been some confusion about the correct aspect ratio of this film for a number of years now. Parts of the movie were shot in the 1.37:1 Academy ratio while others were shot in some degree of widescreen. The earliest DVD editions presented the film in ostensibly an open matte fullframe format, with black bars occasionally showing up at the top and bottom of specific scenes. The 40th anniversary edition from 2004, like this Blu-ray edition, was presented in 1.66:1, mirroring the film's original theatrical exhibitions. This format suits the movie well, and nothing of importance seems to be missing as a result of the cropping. The high definition transfer is excellent, producing a beautiful image with strong contrast and a fine gray scale. Lots of good film grain is visible, and the image has great depth and detail. "Dr. Strangelove" has always been a somewhat murky-looking film, and this transfer reproduces that appearance while still maintaining the utmost quality. Compared to the Blu-ray transfers of contemporary Hollywood films, this may seem unremarkable, but it is the best the film has looked and probably will ever look on home video.
An English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD mix has been provided. In all honesty, this is not tremendously different from the original Mono soundtrack, which is also available, but ambient and background noises are clearer and more audible throughout. Where this mix really becomes effective is in the shooting sequences, as the sounds of gunfire are given some good directional pull. A French 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track is also provided, along with optional English, French, Arabic, and Dutch subtitles.
The majority of the special features on this Blu-ray edition have been ported over from the previous 2001 and 2004 special edition DVDs. The lone new feature is a Picture-in-Picture and pop-up trivia track that presents interview snippets and text factoids during the movie. This is actually a more informative feature than I initially expected, featuring commentary from political experts and information on the Cold War and how close the country came to experiencing a nuclear attack.
The 30-minute feature "No Fighting in the War Room or: Dr. Strangelove and the Nuclear Threat" places the film in context of the political atmosphere of the early 1960s. Interviewees such as Roger Ebert, journalist Bob Woodward, and former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara help paint a clear picture of the society that produced such a film and the military situations that were reflected and satirized by Kubrick (while director Spike Lee has nothing of great interest or insight to offer). This is a highly informative documentary, especially for someone like me who was born a good 20 years after this film's release. It also emphasizes how relevant this film remains today despite being so distinctly a product of its era.
The 46-minute documentary "Inside: Dr. Strangelove..." provides a straightforward look at the film's production from its literary origin to its release. Film historian Alexander Walker, Kubrick's former producing partner James B. Harris, actor James Earl Jones, and production designer Ken Adam are just a few of the people detailing the making of the film.
This is followed by a pair of short featurettes, starting with "Best Sellers or: Peter Sellers and Dr. Strangelove," an 18-minute piece on Sellers' early career and his experience working on the film at hand. Next is "The Art of Stanley Kubrick: From Short Films to Strangelove," a 14-minute featurette highlighting Kubrick's beginnings as a director of short films and the feature films he made up to "Dr. Strangelove."
The complete, unedited 24-minute interview with Robert McNamara that was conducted for the "No Fighting in the War Room" documentary is included next. This is a fascinating piece with a man who does not mince words or hold back when questioned. While his interview is not directly related to the film, it does help to expand the political context provided by the first documentary, if rather pointedly.
Finally, a pair of scripted interviews with Peter Sellers and George C. Scott filmed for publicity purposes is included. The two actors are in costume and on set. They were filmed speaking on the phone separately from their "interviewee," and the footage was then shown on TV in splitscreen. Only Sellers and Scott's footage is shown, so their answers are rendered mostly incomprehensible without the questions, but this feature was included more for curiosity than anything else.
The Blu-ray disc is BD-Live enabled and comes housed in a case that doubles as a collectible booklet. Inside are production photos, short essays on the film's endurance (by Richard Tanne) and the alternate casting and story ideas, including the infamous pie-fight ending (by Travis Baker), and bios for Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Kubrick.
The recommendation here is obvious. A great film in its best home video quality with all of the significant extras from the previous DVD releases (save for the fantastic trailer). It's a no-brainer.