The threat of nuclear war may have diminished in recent years, but it’s never gone away. The latest jousting between the US and North Korea makes it a stark reality again, recalling dread moments at the height of the Cold War when civilisation balanced on a precipice.
In the 1950s, the policy of nuclear brinkmanship came to be associated with Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, who defined it as “the ability to get to the verge without getting into the war”. In other words, it was the risky tactic of resorting to nuclear intimidation against an opposing power, which might call a bluff.
Atomic age paranoia first emerged in sci-fi movies of this era, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Them! (1954). But, after the fraught October of 1962, when the Cuban missile crisis brought the US and USSR close to the edge of nuclear conflict, directors began to deal more directly with the possibility of nuclear escalation. Whether deadly serious or blackly comic, the resulting films share a sense of horror about our march toward mutually assured destruction.
Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Director Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick’s classic started out as a sombre response to the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cuban missile crisis. Loosely based on Peter George’s 1958 novel Red Alert, it’s the story of a deranged American general (Sterling Hayden) who orders an attack on the Soviet Union, leading the two nations to the brink of nuclear annihilation when security systems prevent the president (Peter Sellers) from recalling the attacking planes.
Seeing the inherent absurdity of mutually assured destruction (MAD), however, Kubrick brought aboard comic novelist Terry Southern to help transform this nightmare vision into a satire on political and military lunacy. Boasting no less than three unforgettable performances from Sellers – he also plays a British general and the eponymous, crazed, ex-Nazi scientist – the result is a masterpiece of black humour, with a host of endlessly quotable lines. George C. Scott is also on hilarious form as the hawkish American general who advises: “Mr President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops.”
Seven Days in May (1964)
Director John Frankenheimer
After his 1962 breakthrough with the Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate, director John Frankenheimer teamed with Twilight Zone screenwriter Rod Serling on this tense political drama that ups the stakes with a grimly realistic scenario in which the attack on America comes from within. Set 10 years into the future, it begins after the unpopular US president, Jordan Lyman (Fredric March), has signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviets – a controversial act that leads Air Force General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster) to lead a hostile takeover of the US government by the military elite.
President John F. Kennedy encouraged Frankenheimer to make the film, as “a warning to the public” after he had apparently clashed with an army general with extremist views early in his administration. Audacious for its time, Seven Days in May deftly captures the paranoia of the Cold War era, and still stands as a reminder that democracy is a fragile thing. Sadly, JFK did not live to see the film.
Fail Safe (1964)
Director Sidney Lumet
A straight-faced version of a very similar plot to Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe arrived in cinemas just 10 months later and its box office suffered as a result. Frighteningly realistic, it’s a riveting thriller starring Henry Fonda as the US president who attempts to avert total destruction after a computer accidentally dispatches an attack code, sending a squadron of American planes to drop nuclear bombs on Moscow. When top military and political officials endeavour to prevent the attack, they discover that the pilots have been trained to ignore orders after they pass the crucial fail-safe points.
Packed with memorable scenes, including the moment when US control room staff cheer spontaneously when one of their own warplanes is shot down, Fail Safe is against-the-clock drama, with the tension cranked up to excruciating heights until the president is forced to make a shocking decision.
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The War Game (1965)
Director Peter Watkins
Peter Watkins’ notorious docu-drama delivers its harrowing message in just 48 minutes – albeit 48 minutes you’ll never be able to get out of your head. Commissioned by the BBC, but then pulled from the TV schedules when commissioners deemed it “too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting”, it chronicles the build-up to and fallout from a Soviet strike on Britain, the dire outcome of escalating international tensions in Europe, America and the far east.
With this and his previous TV film, Culloden (1964), Watkins pioneered a brutally effective new form of drama, using news magazine-style reportage to give events a shocking immediacy. With its plummy narration and methodical dramatisation of the strike’s aftermath, The War Game employs the familiar tropes of TV documentary but uses them to face up to this most nightmarish of hypotheticals. Offering cold facts and a clear warning, Watkins’ film proved easier to see abroad, where it won the Oscar for best documentary in 1966.
Director John Badham
Riding a wave of renewed nuclear panic in the Reagan era, WarGames combined the Cold War uncertainty of the 1980s with the decade’s teen hacker paranoia, introducing Matthew Broderick as the high-schooler who gains access to America’s atomic arsenal from his PC and inadvertently almost starts WWIII. It’s a film that’s both tech savvy and techno-sceptic, both thrilled by the adventure undertaken by Broderick’s David and concerned that a kid looking to play an online video game could potentially doom mankind.
Perhaps summing up the then-US government’s cavalier attitude towards the concept of MAD, when David asks the malfunctioning online defence system whether its digital ‘simulation’ of ICBM and nuclear sub movements is actually real or just a game, it responds: “What’s the difference?” Directed by Saturday Night Fever’s John Badham, WarGames wears the light frivolity of popcorn entertainment, but, in the same year as the film’s release, a 19-year-old UCLA student successfully used his home computer to hack the US Defence Department.
Director Mick Jackson
Eschewing the government and military perspective favoured by other movies, Threads considers what approaching nuclear apocalypse would look like to ordinary men and women. Where the second half of director Mick Jackson and writer Barry Hines’ documentary-style drama shows us the unimaginable, initially it depicts the build-up to Armageddon as relatably mundane: the inhabitants of working-class Sheffield continue about their daily lives despite news reports of an escalating US-Soviet clash over in the Middle East – until the air raid sirens indicate they can ignore the story no longer.
Threads wasn’t the only TV film of the 1980s to imagine a nuclear apocalypse of the everyday. Ten months before Jackson’s film first aired on British television, the end came to rural Kansas in The Day After, an ABC movie of the week that – according to Ronald Reagan’s own memoirs – changed his stance on nuclear war and in part led to the signing of 1987’s Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Miracle Mile (1988)
Director Steve De Jarnatt
Beginning as romantic comedy, with LA museum curator Harry (Anthony Edwards) falling head over heels for quirky barista Julie (Mare Winningham), Miracle Mile’s jolting transition to doomsday thriller in its first act played to underlying fears during the period that the world could at any second simply end without warning.
Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt only hints at what brings humanity to a state of nuclear war: late for his first date with Julie, Harry answers a ringing payphone outside their agreed meeting place and is informed by a panicked voice that American warheads have fired, with a retaliatory Russian strike set to hit the US in just 70 minutes. The film then becomes a race against time – not for Harry and Julie to save the day, but to make the most of what’s left of their lives before it’s all over.
Crimson Tide (1995)
Director Tony Scott
Released four years after the collapse of the USSR, Crimson Tide is a typically bombastic Simpson-Bruckheimer production, both about the world coming to terms with the precarious new post-Soviet reality and Hollywood coming to terms with the fact that its go-to bogeyman of several decades was suddenly no longer supposed to be a threat. Tony Scott’s riveting submarine thriller, like the same year’s GoldenEye and Die Hard with a Vengeance, can’t let go of the idea that remnants of the eastern bloc might still be intent on making the west sweat.
Screenwriter Michael Schiffer (with assists from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Towne) posits a scenario where Russian ultra-nationalists take advantage of the region’s instability to seize territory and arms and threaten nuclear war. Under the ocean, where a US nuclear sub is divided over whether to fire missiles at Russian targets after its communications are cut, the survival of the species hinges on which approach to thermonuclear warfare prevails: the reactionary bluster of Gene Hackman’s captain or the caution of Denzel Washington’s discerning second-in-command.
Director Rod Lurie
Recalling the tense nuclear brinkmanship films of the Cold War era, in which political forces ran amok, Deterrence features Kevin Pollak as US president Walter Emerson, who is faced with a global crisis while snowed in at a campaign stop in Colorado. When Iraq invades Kuwait, Emerson, deemed by the press to be somewhat below his current office, immediately goes on the airwaves, addresses the American public and demands that Iraq withdraw the troops or face a strike on Baghdad. As a nuclear chess game is played out, Iraq retaliates by announcing it will launch weapons at major world cities.
Like Fail Safe, Deterrence constrains itself mainly to a single location, as Lurie conjures up an engaging scenario dealing with a subject that is not only timely but unnervingly prophetic in light of current world events.
Thirteen Days (2000)
Director Roger Donaldson
Telling the American side of a story of real-life nuclear impasse, Roger Donaldson’s account of the Cuban missile crisis details the impossible situation John F Kennedy and his chiefs of staff faced over 13 days in the autumn of 1962. A US spy plane discovers nukes stashed in Soviet-allied Cuba, and, as the world enters panic mode, government and military officials gather to try figure out the best way to avoid total war.
It’s a ticking-clock set-up, played out in stifling boardrooms full of suits endlessly talking their way through a scenario no one could realistically prepare for. What David Self’s screenplay and tightly-wound performances from the likes of Bruce Greenwood and Dylan Baker (playing JFK and Robert McNamara, respectively) convey is just how unnervingly delicate the situation was: east and west were only a botched reconnaissance flight or a misunderstood naval order away from disaster.