Thanks to Omicron and Nudnikron, Judge Russell Engebretson became an expert in satellite telemetry at a very young age.
Our review of Cold War (2012), published October 24th, 2013, is also available.
To the leaders, who are timeless
"Men make their own history, but they do not know that they are making it."—Karl Marx
Cold War, a joint production between the BBC and the Turner Broadcasting System, is a twenty-four-episode series that aired on CNN in 1998. It begins with a brief look at Soviet and U.S. relations between the first and second World Wars, then follows the stormy history of the two powers from the end of World War II to the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991. Each episode examines an aspect of the cold war such as MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), the Space Race, or the Star Wars program—with much commentary from participants on both sides. Several episodes are also devoted to an analysis of the major wars of the era that Americans fought in Korea and Vietnam, and the Russians in Afghanistan.
There are a staggering number of interviews from presidents, cabinet members, prime ministers, peasants, foot soldiers, average citizens, military brass, Stasi and CIA agents, and many more, complemented by a vast collection of archival film. The narration is read by Kenneth Branagh, who maintains a professionally neutral tone throughout.
Each 45-minute installment begins with a quick introduction to the subject at hand, followed by a short intro, before jumping into the episode proper. The series' creators expertly handle the unavoidable Tower of Babel that results from the many non-English speakers by beginning each interview with the speaker's voice in his or her native language, which is then lowered in volume and replaced with a translator's voiceover. English SDH subtitles are also provided.
Below is a rundown of the contents that span the six-disc set:
Special Feature: Castro: In His Own Words (Fidel Castro speaks out on the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis)
Special Feature: The Hoaxsters (Cautionary cold war-era propaganda documentary)
The Cold War slipcase cover art is a colorful faux woodcut of John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. JFK, behind a podium with his hand slightly raised as though making an important point, appears reasonable and statesman-like, while Khrushchev, with his wide open mouth and upraised fist, might as well have a cartoon balloon floating over his head that reads, "We will bury you!" A bank of red missiles looms in the background, sprouting from the Soviet flag and partially covering the stars on the American flag. Fortunately for the viewer, the series is not as unbalanced as the cover might lead one to believe, but the documentary's outlook is indeed America-centric. The episode, Conclusions, for instance, takes on a rather triumphalist tone with a beaming Bush the Elder crowing over the 1991 Christmas Day dissolution of the Soviet Republic. The underlying implication seems to be that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were equally culpable for the arms buildup and the belligerent nuclear standoff.
Yet, earlier episodes in the series present enough facts to muster up a strong argument for America's desire to continue and escalate the Cold War. The CIA receives considerable criticism for its covert "low-level war" atrocities in Guatemala, Cuba, and Chile (the CIA was always eager to spring into action when the leader of a sovereign nation began to speak openly about nationalizing local industries.) More tellingly, thanks to a Soviet economy that was collapsing under the weight of its heavy defense spending, Gorbachev was ready to scrap all of the country's nuclear devices in a one-to-one deal with the U.S., but Reagan adamantly refused to terminate the absurd Strategic Defense Initiative (a.k.a. the Star Wars program, roundly criticized by most scientists), and thereby scuttled the deal.
A later episode points out that Soviet Russia was not a monolithic entity, but a precarious conglomeration of fifteen republics and a handful of satellite countries. On the other hand, the USA—a vastly richer and more stable country, not bordered by any hostile nations—found it in its interest to protect the world from communism by undermining democratically elected leaders and backing non-communist, dictatorial regimes around the world. On the Soviet side of the ledger, there is no doubt that Stalin was a homicidal egomaniac. During his thirty-year reign he established gulags and had hundreds of thousands of innocents executed, but it's clear from this series—even with its capitalistic bias—that America's leaders were less motivated by ideology than imperialistic ambitions. The decades-long Cold War was a conflict generally framed by politicians and the media as the clash of capitalist and communist ideologies, but in fact was more often about servicing giant corporations, acquisition of territories, and empire building. The series concludes with a supposedly happy ending as the Soviet Republic vanishes, but I'm not so sure about that. Fourteen years after the series aired, the backwash of the Cold War is still very much with us.
The history of the Cold War is a vast landscape of Machiavellian intrigue, wars of aggression, and cynical manipulation of politics for shadowy ends, all loosely wrapped in high-toned patriotic homilies. We can only be grateful that our great leaders, mostly through sheer luck, did not enshroud the earth in a nuclear fire. Regretfully, with the huge cache of nuclear bombs and missiles left in the wake of Cold War hostilities, ongoing servitude to the arms industry, lack of political will to destroy those weapons, and an overabundance of saber-rattling politicians, there is still ample opportunity for a third world war.
The new DVD set includes only two extras: Hoaxsters (36:06), a polished but intellectually crude propaganda film from 1952 that compares communists and socialists to snake-oil salesman, and an interview with Fidel Castro, Castro In His Own Words, in which he pontificates on the Cuban Missile Crises of 1962. I know it would have been too much to ask, but a follow-up episode bringing us up to date on Cold War after-effects would have been a wonderful inclusion.
Picture quality varies in accordance with the condition of the archival material. The archival clips vary from fairly beat-up to quite nice, with an average amount of dirt and debris present. All the interviews filmed for the series are sharp and well-lighted. The standard definition 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer fits perfectly on a 1.78:1 display (no black bars), and is an overall pleasing image. The DVD case states the audio is Dolby 2.0 Stereo, but try as I might, I only hear monophonic. In any case, the sound is perfectly acceptable for a documentary style series. The sound of the old newscasts is often clipped and full of hiss, but the modern footage—interviewees and narrator—is crisp and intelligible.
Because I lived through much of the era, the eighteen-hour documentary was something of an emotional roller coaster ride for me, dredging up memories I had not revisited in decades. I recalled listening intently for the Sputnik's beep on a crystal radio set, doing the nuclear bomb "duck and cover" drill in grade school, watching the black-and-white TV broadcast of Kennedy's Cuban Missile Crisis speech, and marching in antiwar rallies. However, it's not necessary to have come of age during the Fifties and Sixties to enjoy the series. It's the deepest, most comprehensive coverage of Cold War history aired on TV, and not likely to be equaled anytime soon. Along with a few good books on the subject and at least one viewing of Dr. Strangelove, watching Cold War is a fine way to get acquainted with mid-to-late twentieth century realpolitik.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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