With the new release of Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, I tried for the umpteenth time to actually like Stanley Kubrick’s famed black comedy. It didn’t work. To be sure, I definitely don't think that Strangelove is a bad movie, but I find it to be a profoundly overrated piece.
Strangelove tells a story of threatened nuclear annihilation, but it does so in a comedic way. The movie mainly takes place in three different locations. There’s Burpelson Air Force Base, where nutbag General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has overstepped his authority and put “Plan R” into motion. That initiative will drop nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union, as delivered by a number of planes. The second main location is on board one of these crafts; headed by goofy Texan Major T.J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens), this crew is determined to get their payload to the Russkies.
The final location goes to the heart of American power in the fictional “War Room”. There we find President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), a mild-mannered sort who tries to work through this chaos with the “help” of hawkish General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott) and the titular Dr. Strangelove (Sellers again), a former Nazi scientist who discusses way to continue the human race after the bombs fall.
Strangelove alternates between the three settings. Back at Burpelson, Ripper’s RAF aide Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Sellers again again) tries to reason with him so he can acquire the code that will recall the bombers, while other US military forces try to take over the base to stop Ripper. On board the plane, we see the preparations of Kong’s crew, while in the War Room, the president and the others discuss their options and communicate with Soviet officials.
The scenes on the plane are easily the least compelling of the bunch, at least until the film reaches its famous conclusion. Little of real interest happens among Kong and his men, although Pickens’ personality makes the segments more enjoyable. Nonetheless, these parts can get pretty dull, especially since Kubrick subjects us to far too many tedious shots of the plane as it flies past us.
The portions that take place at Burpelson are much more interesting, largely due to Hayden’s gruff performance as Ripper. He spouts insane nonsense with the utmost conviction and barely lets on that the material is comic. Sellers plays it pretty straight as Mandrake, the least interesting character of the three he plays; Muffley is also dull, but he gets better lines to read. Mandrake mainly exists to contrast against the other participants he encounters, such as inanely “by the book” Colonel “Bat” Guano (Keenan Wynn).
Most of the film’s best-regarded sequences take place at the War Room, where Muffley seems to be the only truly sane person who tries to act. Turgidson is a childish loon, while the good Doctor appears to have visions of a Fourth Reich dancing in his head. The Soviets aren’t much help, as Muffley endures comically pointless phone calls with their premier.
At its best, Strangelove can offer some amusing material. Most of the humor derives from the performers themselves; as I’ll explain, I found the source material to be pedantic and obvious. However, the actors overcome these flaws with some strong results. Of the three roles played by Sellers, Strangelove is the only “showy” one, but he excels in all of them and he nicely displays what a chameleon he was; if you didn't know it was Sellers, I doubt you'd recognize that the same actor played all three roles.
While all of the acting in the picture is good, I have to admit that I enjoyed George C. Scott's work most of all. Scott's not someone who's usually thought of as a comedic actor, so it's fun to see him let loose in that kind of role. He plays the part broadly but never goes too far; I can't say that his work was grounded in realism, but he manages to keep the character's excesses under control. Wynn was also excellent as the excessively serious Colonel Guano; he adds dry humor to lines that otherwise should have fallen flat.
While I’ll probably be slammed for my opinion, I really think that the great acting is all that holds Strangelove together. Many applaud its “clever” take on the insanity of the arms race, but I think the movie lacks a great deal of incisive commentary. The puns of the character names get old quickly, and I felt the movie had a preachy, smarmy tone that made it less compelling. Kubrick repeatedly tells us that the competitive and combative paths followed by the Soviets and the Americans was stupid and suicidal. Okay - how about teaching us something we don’t know?
I recognize that these sorts of opinions may not have been widespread at the time, and Strangelove earns points for its somewhat innovative approach to political satire, but some act as though Kubrick invented anti-war commentary. That just isn’t the case - made virtually simultaneously, Fail-Safe took a very similar (though dramatic) view of the subject - and the lack of subtlety loses Strangelove some credit. Many seem to adore the oft-quoted line: “You can't fight in here, this is the War Room!” That’s supposed to show deft wit and insight about the stupidity of military institutions? These sentiments are compounded by shots at Burpelson. In these combat takes place before signs that read “Peace is our profession” and similar sayings.
Some seem to regard these scenes as subtle and clever, but I thought they were excessively obvious. Good satire shows an understanding of its subject and lacks condescension, but Kubrick never treats his characters as much more than dimwits - with a couple of exceptions - and in no way demonstrates a comprehension of the situations. As such, the film takes an absolute view of right and wrong that makes it seem simplistic.
Yes, there’s a lot about politics that is asinine, and the subject remains ripe for parody. However, I felt that Dr. Strangelove lacked the subtlety and “feel” for the subject to qualify it as a great film. Does the movie work? Yes, but mainly because of some highly-entertaining performances from the actors. Otherwise, I thought too much of the movie came across as smug and arrogant; it felt much too self-congratulatory for my liking. The picture mocks its subjects but offers no better ideas of its own.
Dr. Strangelove appears in varying aspect ratios of 1.33:1 (fullscreen) and 1.66:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD. These alternating dimensions represent how Kubrick shot the film; the 1.66:1 scenes were apparently matted in the camera, as the lines looked soft. To be honest, since 1.66:1 offers such a mild matte, the letterboxed scenes were almost indistinguishable from the fullscreen shots; I rarely noticed the changes, so it was definitely not a distraction.
The picture presented on this new DVD seemed identical to the one found on the original release of Dr. Strangelove. Sharpness generally seemed positive. Most of the movie appeared fairly crisp and well-defined, with one some mild softness on display at times. Moiré effects cropped up on occasion, usually when we saw George C. Scott’s wrinkly forehead, and some jagged edges appeared due to the rims of eyeglasses.
Black levels looked nicely deep and dark throughout the film. These tones showed no tendency to appear gray or washed-out, and shadow detail seemed very good. Low-light scenes were appropriately delineated but not excessively thick.
The main problem on display during Dr. Strangelove stemmed from print flaws. The movie showed an awful lot of defects. During much of the picture, these stayed relatively minor, though they affected a high percentage of the film. On most occasions, grain, speckles, and grit could be observed.
The greatest concerns popped up during special effects or stock footage, most of which involved shots of flying planes. Those scenes consistently looked badly worn. I saw examples of scratches, blotches, running vertical lines, nicks, and the other flaws also witnessed during the main body of the movie. As I noted, the majority of the film didn’t look at bad as these effects shots, but the image consistently displayed a variety of distracting defects. Due mainly to these flaws, Dr. Strangelove earned a below-average “C-“ for picture quality.
The monaural soundtrack seemed a little better than the image, but not much. As a whole, the mix sounded dated but decent. Dialogue came across brittle and thin but speech appeared acceptably accurate with no problems related to intelligibility. Effects sounded clean and relatively realistic, though they lacked depth. The film’s simple score - which consisted mainly of martial drums and trumpet - was clear and without any shrill or distorted qualities. Ultimately, the audio seemed very typical of products from its era, so it received an average “C”.
In regard to picture and sound, the new DVD of Dr. Strangelove appears no different than the old one. We find the big alterations in the supplemental material. The original disc included absolutely nothing - not even a trailer. That situation has been corrected to a certain degree with this new special edition DVD. It doesn’t pack in a slew of features, but we discover some nice pieces nonetheless.
Most interesting are the disc’s video programs. First up is “The Art of Stanley Kubrick: From Short Films to Strangelove”. This 13-minute and 45-second show takes a quick look at the director’s early career. We see these years through a mix of film clips, photos, and interviews with a variety of co-workers and critics. The latter add the most value to the show, as we hear a lot about Kubrick’s early work and learn how his style evolved. Ultimately, the piece is too short, and it should have gone further into Kubrick’s career; as the title indicates, the program ends with the completion of Strangelove, which means we hear nothing of his later films. Despite those flaws, “Art” offered a solid little overview that proved fairly enlightening.
Even more compelling and informative was “Inside the Making of Dr. Strangelove”, an excellent 46 minute documentary. This show follows the same format as “Art” and it shares many of the latter program’s commentators. We hear from a surprisingly rich mix of Strangelove participants such as production designer Ken Adam, editor Anthony Harvey, and art director Peter Murton; since all of the lead actors are dead, that area lacks depth, but we do see James Earl Jones and Tracy Reed. I learned an awful lot about the making of Strangelove, and this program provides quite a few interesting details about the film.
The final video piece shows some canned interviews from 1963. These took place on the set and featured actors George C. Scott and Peter Sellers. At that time, “open-ended” interviews were popular. Through this, your local TV dude could pretend to talk directly to Scott and/or Sellers via scripted questions. These were used more frequently on radio shows, but these clips show a split-screen format in which your TV person would be inserted on the left side of the screen. There’s little information to be gleaned from the seven minutes and 15 seconds worth of clips, and the presentation seemed a little annoying since we hear none of the questions themselves - we just get the answers - but it’s a cool historical addition nonetheless.
An “Original Advertising Gallery” displays nine stillframes worth of promotional artwork, while the “Trailers” section offers ads for Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe and Anatomy of a Murder. The borderline-useless “Talent Files” provide very basic biographies for Kubrick, Sellers, Scott, Hayden, Wynn, Pickens, and Jones, but the text production notes in the DVD’s booklet add some interesting details.
Lastly, the DVD includes one minor “Easter egg”. On the main page, click “down” from the “Special Features” listing and you can activate a montage that apparently was used as a teaser trailer.
All in all, the new release of Dr. Strangelove offers a nice little package. Clearly it’s not an exhaustive special edition, but it gives us a good look at a famous film. Frankly, I don’t think the movie deserves its reputation, but it can be funny and entertaining. The DVD features picture and sound that seemed identical to prior releases, but it adds some solid extras.
Those new to the film should go with this copy instead of the old ones; there’s no reason not to choose it. For owners of the old disc, the question is less clear. If you don’t care about supplements, you have no need to purchase the new release; the picture and sound appeared the same. However, if you enjoy extras, then this one may merit your time. The new materials are strong enough to make the special edition worth a look.
Note: this new version of Dr. Strangelove can be purchased on its own
or as part of a nine-DVD set called the "Stanley Kubrick Collection". In
addition to Dr. Strangelove, this package includes newly-remastered
DVDs of Lolita, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange,
Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, Eyes
Wide Shut and a recent documentary called Stanley Kubrick: A Life In
Pictures. All of the movies are available separately, but the
documentary appears only in the boxed set. List price for the package is
$199.92, which almost matches the $199.84 the DVDs would cost separately.
If you want all of the films, the "Kubrick Collection" is a great deal; fans
should be more than happy to pay eight cents for the documentary disc.
Although the "Kubrick Collection" is produced by Warner Bros. and the
individual Dr. Strangelove special edition comes from
Columbia-Tristar, the two packages are nearly identical. They differ only
because the WB comes in a "snapper" case, which means that it lacks the text
insert found with the CTS DVD. Disc content is identical.