Dogfight (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: Apr 22, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Dogfight (Blu-ray Review)


Nancy Savoca

Release Date(s)

1991 (April 30, 2024)


Warner Bros. (The Criterion Collection – Spine #1216)
  • Film/Program Grade: A
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: A+

Dogfight (Blu-ray)

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Dogfight is an unusual romantic drama. Shortly before a decade that would usher in vast social change, a young man blunders into a significant crossroads in his life when he discovers, in a girl he’s just met, his own better self.

Eddie Birdlace (River Phoenix, Stand By Me) is a young marine on leave in San Francisco with his buddies from boot camp (Richard Panebianco, Anthony Clark, Mitchell Whitfield). It’s 1963 and they’re scheduled to ship out shortly to Vietnam. They decide to organize a “dogfight,” a cruel contest masquerading as a party in which they bet on who can bring the ugliest girl. The marine whose date is voted the best “dog” wins a pile of money.

After trying to pick up a number of likely candidates with no luck, Eddie wanders into a cafe and sweet-talks the waitress Rose (Lili Taylor, Say Anything). Rose is a shy, sensitive girl who listens to folk music and writes poetry. She’s not ugly but she’s plain and awkward, and time is getting short. Feeling sorry for Eddie and pleased by the unaccustomed attention, she agrees to go to the party with him.

Rose soon learns about the dogfight. Initially mortified, she becomes angry and confronts Eddie, not merely for how he has used her but also for how his friends have treated their victims of the wager, and walks out. By then, however, Eddie has come to feel an unaccustomed respect and affection for Rose. He follows her home and apologizes, and they start a conversation that leads to an evening on the town. The more time they spend, the more Eddie sees in Rose and the more she sees in him. Away from his heedless buddies, he drops his surface machismo to reveal a caring, thoughtful person.

Director Nancy Savoca captures a time in America when the buttoned-down post-World War II era would soon be up-ended by the assassination of President Kennedy, social unrest, civil rights marches, the sexual revolution, and a war in Vietnam that would spark mass protests and divide the nation. This is the backdrop to the story of Birdlace and Rose, two souls brought together by chance who bring out the best qualities of each other. Their romance has a sweetness about it that’s balanced by excellent scenes between Eddie and his marine buddies to establish the bond that causes him to conform to their mindset and behave as they do. Conformity is easy until Rose’s indignation comes as a harder blow than her slaps.

Phoenix, who was known for playing rebels and misfits, assumes a very different type of role in Dogfight. Eddie is more than willing to join his friends in a cruel game until he sees the goodness in Rose, has second thoughts, and offers her an out by suggesting that they go somewhere else. But, unsuspecting, she’s eager to join the fun. Phoenix believably inhabits Eddie Birdlace, conveying the sensitivity to convince us of the kinder, less brash version of himself that Rose brings out.

Taylor plays Rose with a solemn face, an endearing smile, and a calm composure that underscores the justness of her anger. Her chemistry with Phoenix makes the story click. They convey a natural rapport that ranges from initial awkwardness to something much deeper as Rose and Eddie get to look into each other’s souls. Shy, but comfortable talking with Eddie, Rose is not exactly a shrinking violet, but she does blossom as the film goes on. Physically, her fashion sense and hair style improve, making her less a caricature, more a character.

Birdlace is a composite of many young soldiers who join up and soon find themselves in a culture of bragging and shagging, with their loyalty to each other a fiercely held bond. He lives in a period when the times are changing. No one knows what is going to happen in a society about to undergo massive upheavals. Birdlace and Rose fumble their way into little truths as two seeming opposites find commonality.

Dogfight was shot by director of photography Bobby Bukowski on 35 mm film with Arriflex 35 BL4 cameras with spherical Cooke lenses, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. According to the information in the enclosed booklet, “the new digital master was created from a 35 mm interpositive, which was scanned in 2K resolution,” under the supervision of director Nancy Savoca. Clarity and sharpness of images are excellent. The color palette varies from the drab green fatigues of the Marines to the colorful print dresses Rose tries on before settling on a solid, pale yellow one. The images are virtually pristine, with no embedded dirt specks or distracting scratches.

The soundtrack is English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. It was remastered from the original 35 mm magnetic tracks and was transferred and restored “with additional editorial services by John Aspinall at Warner Bros,” according to booklet information. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is clear and distinct throughout. The rough talk and banter among the marine buddies is often laced with profanity. In Birdlace’s scenes with Rose, he speaks softly and actually listens to her. The bar scene features music, dancing clinking beer bottles and ambient noise. Period flavor is provided in songs by Ricky Nelson, Lenny Welch, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Malvina Reynolds, Van Morrison, The Weavers, Shirley Ellis, and The Rascals, among others.

Bonus materials on the Region A Blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection include the following:

  • Audio Commentary with Nancy Savoca and Richard Guay
  • New Interview with Nancy Savoca and Lili Taylor (32:11)
  • The Craft of Dogfight (29:09)
  • Trailer (2:02)

Audio Commentary – Director Nancy Savoca and producer Richard Guay provide background on the genesis and making of Dogfight. Savoca was attracted to the project because of its time period, characters and San Francisco setting. Most of the actors in the film weren’t even born in the early 1960s. The first and last scenes of the film were shot on the same day because the bus and trailer had been rented. River Phoenix needed Savoca’s advice since the two scenes reflected Birdlace before and after his relationship with Rose. Many of the male actors, who were new to film, were good but didn’t look like marines, so a former marine was hired to put them through a rugged week of boot camp. The film is about manhood and what that entails. It was tough for Savoca to audition girls who would be chosen for the dates in the dogfight. The awkward moments between Rose and Birdlace are nonetheless appealing. The director had to be careful about “landmines in the script”—making the story mushy or sweetly sickening—so scenes always had a rough edge. The final scene sums up the theme of the film—the young men know their place in the scheme of things. The song We Shall Overcome captures the essence of the era. When we see news of the Kennedy assassination, the film “blooms into many directions. This is a little story,” not a major comment on the Vietnam War. Savoca speaks about taking enough time with a scene to let viewers receive its emotional effect. Because Savoca was somewhat insecure about the project, she immersed herself in expansive research of the period in order to make the film credible. Over the years, Savoca has been told how much Dogfight affected people. It’s deceptively simple but deals with heavy topics. She regrets the early loss of River Phoenix, speculating on the many fine roles he could have undertaken.

Interview with Nancy Savoca and Lili Taylor – Filmmaker Mary Harron conducts this interview with the director and star of Dogfight. The film feels more relevant today than when it was first released. Screenwriter Bob Comfort was telling a story about his time as a young marine. Taylor got “inside the character.” She uses the phrase “No contempt prior to investigation,” meaning she likes to learn as much as she can about a character before adding her own touches. “The character must come first.” Taylor enjoyed playing Rose, a gentle, loving young woman. Rose’s dream is to become a popular folk singer. She has a sense of who she is. She’s intrinsically shy. Taylor charted the character of Rose in four or five sections, making a point of hitting specific notes in each. The film is good at showing “guy culture.” The young men are lost. Birdlace was living a lie as soon as he meets Rose, because he really likes her. River Phoenix had director approval. He was attracted to the role because it was everything he wasn’t. Birdlace is a tortured person. The screen chemistry between Taylor and Phoenix is strong. The film focuses on the value of a person’s inner life.

The Craft of Dogfight – The cinematographer, production designer, script supervisor, music supervisor, supervising sound editor, and editor of Dogfight discuss the film and their individual contributions. The game of the title is referred to as “organized cruelty.” One goal was to give San Francisco a sense of intimacy, so many empty storefronts were dressed in period. Set design “builds layers of the characters’ lives.” There’s a lot of cacophony until Birdlace and Rose are alone, things get quieter, and the lighting becomes soft and warm. Savoca likes to show characters in two-shots. Many directors will overuse the close-up but Savoca employs it only when absolutely necessary. She trusts her actors’ performances. Storyboards provided the blueprint of filming and indicated what had to be communicated in each scene. A battle sequence takes only a few seconds on screen but took much longer to set up and film. Savoca is a purist in terms of getting period details accurate.

Booklet – The accordion-style booklet contains the essay In Love and War by Christina Newland, cast and credits listing, 13 black & white photos, and information about the film’s digital restoration.

The marine recruits of Dogfight are insensitive and cruel to the young women they invite to the dogfight because of their youth and the dangers they know they will soon face. The film shows how these guys bond although in civilian life they might never have bothered to strike up friendships. The script is sharp and unsentimental, and the film is well cast. This is not a film about the Vietnam War. Rather, the war hovers over it like the Grim Reaper. A small film, beautifully directed, Dogfight features one of River Phoenix’s strongest screen performances.

- Dennis Seuling