Dr. Strangelove’s status as the movie that confirmed both Stanley Kubrick’s reputation and the arrival of beat-sick irreverence can no longer be retracted. Kubrick and co-scripters Peter George and Terry Southern fashioned a goonish-ghoulish portrait of diplomatic insanity that’s zippy, ruthless, and cartoonish enough that the flick is worshipped even among those who can’t stand Kubrick’s later, fastidiously methodical movies. Boasting three wildly diverse characterizations from Peter Sellers and a terrifyingly enthusiastic performance by George C. Scott (out-Pattoning Patton as a Joint Chief of Staff), Dr. Strangelove checkmates the Cold War’s stalemate by satirizing the joke of institutionalized “preparedness.” With doomsday devices springing up everywhere to prevent defense gaps between America and the Soviet Union, all it takes to bring the entire globe to the brink of nuclear winter is one single loose sprocket in the U.S. Defense Department. Kubrick’s punchline isn’t that the destruction of humanity is one big sunny joke; it’s that humanity has already passive-aggressively done itself in. While the director certainly never regards humanity with the same sense of utter puzzlement and alienation he achieved in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, and Eyes Wide Shut, he clearly finds it impossible to take sides. If Scott’s mad-dog bloodlust and Sellers’s frustrating ineffectuality as President Merkin Muffley are a merciless one-two shot against America’s own self-image as the world’s benevolent dictator, Peter Bull’s stoic, consistently stentorian portrayal of the Russian ambassador is no less savage. And Kubrick, George, and Southern’s “say no more” comparison between Sterling Hayden’s impotence as Burpelson Air Force Base’s strategic commander and cowboy-pilot Slim Pickens’s bucking, immensely phallic ride atop an H-bomb still stands as one of the nastiest jokes ever had at the expense of the industrial-military complex.
Far from a high-budget film, Dr. Strangelove’s Blu-ray transfer is no match for some of the black-and-white films Criterion has put out on the high-def format. That said, it appears radically clearer than any existing DVD edition. There’s still a lot of print damage and the grain is awfully prevalent on the darker end of the spectrum, but the 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen image looks tighter than all previous editions, which used 1.33:1 full frame to match Kubrick’s alleged preference for home viewing. I’m not particularly enamored with the 5.1 TrueHD remix, which does little to open up the mix. To my ears, you may as well stick with the mono option.
This Blu-ray really only introduces one brand new feature, a pop-up picture-in-picture trivia which functions as a more interactive commentary track. Otherwise, they’ve recycled the solid documentaries featured on the previous DVD edition, including a long but illuminating interview with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who puts the movie into its historical context, a split-screen interview with Peter Sellers and George C. Scott, behind-the-scenes retrospectives, and an appreciation of Sellers’s career.
Still no sign of the holy grail pie-fight sequence, but the Blu-ray edition of Dr. Strangelove still preserves the film’s purity of essence.