When the Soviets successfully detonated their first A-Bomb in 1949, the world suddenly became acutely aware of the possibility of a global thermonuclear war that could obliterate civilization, leaving only grass and cockroaches behind to rebuild. As the arms race intensified in the decades that followed, the fear and paranoia were ramped up to the red zone and things got hilariously stupid. Convinced the bombs were going to start dropping at any second, suburbanites started feverishly building fallout shelters in the backyard, grade school kids were trained to duck and cover, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists began publishing its quarterly Doomsday Clock to let us know how much time we had left, and Hollywood had a field day with all of it, playing the Cold War and the potential End of the World for all it was worth.
Disaster films had always made for good box office, and this “nuclear war” thing sure topped any boring old earthquake or flood.
The threat of nuclear war and the dangers of radiation exposure took on assorted metaphorical forms throughout the 1950s (most of them very large), from Godzilla to The Amazing Colossal Man. In cinematic terms anyway, the unthinking dispersal of radiation and willy-nilly nuclear testing resulted in giant ants, giant spiders, giant grasshoppers and gila monsters, reanimated dinosaurs, and in at least one instance a massive and sentient deadly mud puddle. Giant monsters were easy, though, and by film’s end could always be contained and destroyed, leaving us all safe again to go about our daily business. But as early as 1951, filmmakers were already pondering the very real possible effects of a nuclear exchange triggered by someone, somewhere, who had a hissy fit and pushed the button.
Arch Oboler was a writer, producer, and radio pioneer whose work on Lights Out in the 1940s showed he had a knack for taking on some dark material, especially when it concerned global threats. After moving from radio to the movies, he was one of the first out of the blocks with 1951’s Five, about a group of unlikely survivors of an atomic war—presumably the last people on earth—who straggle their way to a coastal house in California, where they ponder the past, present and future. The film points no fingers, offers no explanation as to why it happened, simply opening with a mushroom cloud and a mighty kaboom, howling winds, screams, and massive destruction. Then, slowly, one by one, we pick up the survivors as they try to cope with the unimaginable.
Oboler’s film was as bleak as they come, even as he (almost) offers a glimmer of some meager and temporary hope at the end. It would become the standard model for dozens of post-nuke films down the line, even as the nuclear war subgenre sorted itself out into a bevy of sub-subgenres.
Like Christmas, the very notion of global thermonuclear war offered an infinite number of possible interpretations and storylines, so along with the Last People on Earth films like Five, we also got more general post-apocalyptic wasteland survival films, other scenarios focused on the pre-flash and burn panic and preparation, and still others concentrated on the behind-the-scenes maneuvering and power plays leading up to the inevitable.
Roger Corman wasn’t far behind Oboler with 1955’s Day the World Ended, which went into production some ten minutes after it was reported Stalin had the H-bomb. The picture owed an awful lot to Five, save for the addition of a mutated monster menacing the handful of survivors. Three years later Corman would return to the post-doomsday hijinks, producing The World, The Flesh, and the Devil, this time starring Harry Belafonte as the traditional last man on earth (for awhile anyway), playing in the irradiated ruins of NYC. And in 1959 the major studios offered what might have been the last existentialist word on humanity coming to terms with The Bomb in Stanley Kramer’s big-budget all-star bummer On the Beach, based on Nevil Shute’s bestseller.
The war is already over as the film opens. We never learn what prompted it or who started it, and it doesn’t much matter given everyone on the planet is dead apart from those left in Australia. It’s just a matter of time, though, as it’s estimated the radioactive cloud encircling the earth will reach them in five months time, at which point they’ll all start dropping, too. Gregory Peck stars as the commander of a US sub which resurfaces after the war and docks in Melbourne.
A pre-Psycho Anthony Perkins (who tries out an Aussie accent in his first scene or two, then gives up), is a low-ranking officer in the Australian Navy who’s ordered to join Peck’s crew for a recon mission to check radiation levels in the northern hemisphere. Considering he has a wife, a new baby, and knows time is limited, this makes him tense. And Ava Gardner (who makes no effort at all to adopt an appropriate accent) is the town drunken floozie that latches onto Peck.
In spite of lines like “How do you tell the woman you love she has to kill herself and the baby?,” and in spite of the backdrop of impending doom, that impending doom remains mostly set-dressing for what these days plays like a slick and standard late-’50s Hollywood melodrama. Even though everyone knows they’re going to die horribly and painfully from scene one, we still get romance, familial tensions, personal conflicts, and even a little comedy tossed in. Compared with the likes of Five, On the Beach seems a very hesitant and weak stab at confronting mainstream audiences with the nightmarish realities of nuclear war, but I say that with almost sixty years of hindsight.
At the time it was considered a powerful and searing drama, and Kramer does end on a decidedly downbeat note, with the cloud reaching Australia earlier than expected and the population succumbing to radiation poisoning. He then closes on a chilling shot of an empty and silent San Francisco harbor. The rest of the film may have played in very familiar terms, but that closing was an almost unheard of downer in ’59 (at least for a non-genre film), and it accomplished what it set out to do.
In a perfect and rational world that might have been, that film was a big hit, it got millions of people thinking about the unthinkable, and it left little doubt how silly and terrifying the arms race had become on the most fundamental human level. We were all just pawns in a stupid game being played by faceless power-mad zealots. Again in a perfect world it could have brought everyone to his and her senses, and put a stop to all the foolishness. Thank god, then, for the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. The threat was still there, it was more real than anyone wanted to imagine, and Hollywood grabbed it by the throat as no-budget filmmakers and major studios alike found renewed energy to take on Armageddon.
So we got the low budget quickie This is Not a Test in 1962, in which a group of travellers stranded on a mountain road, including Seamon Glass as the local sheriff, debate the best way to survive that cluster of Soviet missiles headed their way. It doesn’t have a happy ending. On an even smaller and more disturbing scale there was 1963’s Ladybug, Ladybug starring William Daniels as the principal of a small rural grade school. When the air raid siren is sounded right around the time the school’s phones go dead, it’s unclear if the siren is just another test or the real thing, so Daniels must assume the latter. The trick then is to get all the kids back to their homes before it’s too late. Whether or not the bombs are really falling is never clarified, which makes the goings-on that much more tense. It’s a personal favorite, with a gloriously grim ending that has nothing to do with fallout or mushroom clouds or blast radii, and everything to do with the power of paranoia.
At the other end of the scale, in 1964 we also got the much-ballyhooed battle between Kubrick’s Strangelove and Sidney Lumet’s deadly serious Fail-Safe. As eerily similar as both storylines were (based on two eerily similar novels), it’s unfair to compare them, but impossible not to. As fine and taut a piece of filmmaking as Fail-Safe is, in the end Strangelove still wins hands-down, presenting the most perfect (and realistic) expression of the insanity of nookyular combat toe-to-toe with the Russkies ever made.
As with On the Beach five years earlier, it still didn’t help matters much, which is why in 1966 we got AIP’s mind-bending and brutal Panic in Year Zero, in which Ray Milland teaches us that in the event of a full-scale nuclear war, only the assholes will survive.
But for all the classic Cold War era nuclear annihilation movies that came out in the ’50s and ‘60s (and the titles above only scratch the surface), if you were an apocalyptic-minded kid growing up in the ‘70s and early ‘80s like I was, there was no better time to be alive. Although the threat of a US-Soviet nuclear exchange wasn’t as immediate under Presidents Ford and Carter as it had been under Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ and Nixon, it was so deeply ingrained in the national consciousness by then it was impossible to escape. Nuclear war imagery and paranoia made its way into pop songs, sitcoms, TV commercials, and Saturday morning cartoons. Even the Peanuts strip contained a few fallout jokes.
Hell, by the time I was nine I was convinced that should someone turn the keys and those missiles start flying, I was going to drag a lawnchair and some binoculars into the backyard to see first-hand the greatest fireworks display EVER. No matter how cool wandering a post-apocalyptic wasteland seemed at the time, even that young I knew I had no interest in surviving. Still I was obsessed with the possibility, and ached to see that rising mushroom cloud in the distance. I immediately identified with the Bomb-worshipping mutants in 1969’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and if a book or magazine featured an ICBM or mushroom cloud on the cover, I knew I had to have it. The fact my town had been named a primary target in the event of WWIII only increased my anticipation, as did the movies. The movies had a way of making the Apocalypse seem totally fucking awesome.
In 1974 we got The Missiles of October, a dramatic recreation of the behind-the-scenes nuclear brinksmanship at play during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That same year also saw Chosen Survivors, starring Jackie Cooper and genre regulars Bradford Dillman and Richard Jaeckel. A slight variation on the format established by Five over two decades earlier, this time the survivors are tossed together in an underground bunker not only before the bombs start falling, but before any of them has the slightest idea the world is about to end. The less said about what transpires the better, except to say it doesn’t present the most glowing picture of mankind under stress. Then a year later we got the post-apocalyptic black comedy A Boy and His Dog with Don Jonson, though no one saw that until the mid-‘80s so it doesn’t count.
Yes, 1977 may have given us Star Wars, Close Encounters, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Squirm, Rollercoaster, Empire of the Ants, The Car, Jaws 2, The Sentinel, Viva Knievel and Exorcist II: The Heretic, but to my mind all those paled when compared with Twilight’s Last Gleaming and Damnation Alley.
After the likes of 1964’s Seven Days in May (which also fits in here, if tangentially) and 1974’s Executive Action, Burt Lancaster had finely honed his stiff, imperious and humorless military madman character to fascistic perfection, and by ’77 was ready to turn him on his head for Twilight’s Last Gleaming.
Director Robert Aldrich, who’d taken on nuclear annihilation once before in 1956’s Kiss Me Deadly, combined elements of Strangelove (minus Peter Sellers and the jokes) and Seven Days in May, then turned it into something completely different.
The supporting cast was one of the greatest collections of character actors the era had to offer, with Burt Young, Richard Jaeckel, Gerald O’Loughlin, Roscoe Lee Brown, Richard Widmark, Paul Winfield, Joseph Cotten, Melvyn Douglas, Blacula’s William Marshall and Charles Durning as, yes, The President. I’ve always been a sucker for any movie with a President in it.
Twilight’s Last Gleaming opens like a cookie cutter suspense thriller about a rogue Air Force general (Lancaster) who breaks out of prison, commandeers a missile silo and threatens to launch nine Titan missiles unless he and his two fellow escapees get ten million in cash and safe passage out of the country. But as it slowly unfolds it reveals itself to be far more surprising (and politically sophisticated) than all that. Even Lancaster’s crazy rogue general, the clear villain at the beginning, becomes sympathetic, even heroic, by film’s end. Although the Soviets are mentioned a few times, it’s less a Cold War picture than a post-Vietnam film. Lancaster’s character, we learn, was a respected general during the war who became an outspoken critic of US policy after his return home. Needing to shut him up, the Air Force arranged to trump up a manslaughter charge following a bar fight into first-degree murder to send him away for life. But that’s not his real beef.
While potential nuclear horror runs throughout the film, at it’s unstated core its really about the publication of The Pentagon Papers, offering up not only a blunt condemnation of US involvement in Southeast Asia, but also a believable if counterintuitive explanation for why the US and Soviets hadn’t lobbed any ICBMs at each other yet. It may be a little short on the mushroom cloud and mass destruction front, but it was much smarter and more subversive than you’d expect from an all-star suspense thriller produced by a major studio.
The same can’t exactly be said about Damnation Alley, a post-apocalyptic fantasy adventure that also, coincidentally enough co-starred Paul Winfield. We even get a brief turn from This Is Not a Test’s Seamon Glass. Based on a Roger Zelazny novel and directed by Jack Smight (who’d previously directed Airport ’75 and Midway), the film stars George Peppard presaging his A-Team role as the leader of a ragtag bunch of rugged types who roam the presumably radioactive wasteland in a futuristic RV. Their self-appointed mission is to track down and help those few rare and far-flung survivors deal with marauding lowlifes, giant scorpions, and armor-plated flesh-eating cockroaches. Oddly enough, though the entire country now seems to be nothing but a vast desert, radiation doesn’t seem to be an issue.
At the time, sure, it made the post-nuke wasteland seem mighty enticing, but that’s not what stuck with me.
In a ten-minute prologue, we get some lighthearted banter during the change of crews inside a missile silo. All seems well and normal until, wouldn’t you know it, those dirty commies have to ruin everyone’s plans by launching a massive first strike. In grossly oversimplified terms, the crew inserts the keys and launches a retaliatory strike, apparently before getting any kind of confirmation or the go-ahead from the president. While that scene itself would be handled much more realistically in other films, Damnation Alley does offer a single wonderful shot from space as the surface of the earth is dotted with bright red flashes as hundreds of missiles detonate on every continent. Can’t say I’ve seen another nuke film try to do anything similar.
After that, sadly, it’s all pretty dumb and slow. Never put much stock in a film best remembered for its central vehicle.
Then along came Ronald Reagan, and when he was elected in 1980, hoo-nellie! Everyone on both sides of the political fence (and everyone else in the world) was convinced he was itching to launch that first strike, and considering his strong ties to the religious Right, some people were downright giddy about the prospect. A new slew of nuke-themed songs hit the Top 40, doomsday novels landed on the bestseller lists, nuke paranoia hit new heights, and a flood of new nuke movies of varying quality came out of Hollywood. As it had in the 1950s, suddenly it seemed inevitable the missiles would start flying by the end of the week, so I guess everyone wanted to put in their two cents before it happened.
Maybe it only makes sense that the first notable offering of the Reagan era would be the two-part made-for-TV extravaganza World War III in 1982. I mean, with a cast that featured David Soul, Brian Keith, Cathy Lee Crosby and Rock Hudson (as The President!), who wouldn’t want to see the whole damn world go kablammo?
But the trick was, with so much of the nation at the time still all gung-ho and rah-rah for Reagan’s hardline anti-communist rhetoric, the film worked as a precursor to other Red-baiting fantasies that would soon follow, like Red Dawn, Amerika, and Invasion USA, but with the added bonus of tactical nuclear weapons.
When the President orders a grain embargo against the Soviet Union because they’re a bunch of dirty commies, the Soviets react by dropping a team of paratroopers into Alaska to sabotage the Alaskan oil pipeline. Being, you know, evil, they also machine gun several farmers, some National Guardsmen on a training mission, and other stalwart true blue types in the process. Things very slowly escalate.
The Soviets (led by Brian Keith as the Secretary General) are starving and coming apart at the seams, but desperate to keep up a good militant face. The American military, on the other hand, is hobbled by bureaucracy and a President who won’t allow them to do what’s necessary. For the most part, though, the sluggish goings on turn into another soap opera as we concentrate more on character’s personal problems than any impending Armageddon, even as one of Rock Hudson’s advisors recommends taking care of the whole problem by launching a tactical nuclear strike on Alaska.
Things pick up a tick in part two, as the film morphs into a reboot of The Missiles of October, albeit updated and transplanted, with Hudson and Keith playing a game of nuclear chicken. Problem is, the pacing and performances are so lackluster it’s hard to tell things are getting more exciting.
In the end the simple message, ready-made for the times, is that commies are evil, and never more evil than when they seem to be honestly negotiating for peace. The one thing I will give the film is that after giving every indication for nearly three hours it would close with a traditional made-for-TV happy ending, they pull the rug out in the final two minutes. Guess they couldn’t afford to disappoint all the annihilation-happy viewers who’d tuned in expecting to see the worst. And in the process they gave the Reagan administration the flag-waving go-ahead to do whatever was necessary to save us from the evils of communism.
The same time that was airing on TV, moviegoers in surprising numbers were paying to see The Atomic Cafe, a documentary comprised solely of Civil Defense films, educational shorts, and newsreels from the early days of the Cold War. So there’s a lot of duck and cover drills and bomb tests, Hiroshima and the Rosenbergs and fallout shelter etiquette tips. It’s a wonderful and telling little film, but one which most people seemed to take as a mere exercise in gentle nostalgia, shaking their bemused heads at the idea we could have ever thought such a way about nuclear war. But given the reigning atmosphere, what the film was really pointing out was that not a damn thing had changed, apart from the media and the technology, which is clearer now in retrospect than ever.
The early ‘80s also produced a bunch of low-budget (and mostly pretty dreary) sub-Damnation Alley postnuclear wasteland fantasies like DefCon 4, Parasite (starring Demi Moore and released in 3-D!), and the theatrical re-release of A Boy and His Dog. Testament, which came out in 1983, received a good deal of attention for its somber and melancholy portrayal of a young mother (Jane Alexander) dying of radiation poisoning after a nuclear exchange. That same year’s cute teen comedy WarGames (with Matthew Broderick) combined videogames and potential real-life nuclear annihilation, but with a simple and clean happy ending that had precious little connection with reality.
Busy as the early ’80s were in terms of cinematic Armageddons both actual and potential, none of them could touch ABC’s two-night broadcast of The Day After, which was quite literally declared a National Event in the media. The hype surrounding the TV movie was almost unprecedented, making it sound not only like the be-all and end-all of realistic depictions of the effects of nuclear war, but also left it sounding like no one had ever made a movie about nuclear war before. Well, the hype worked, the ratings were massive (I was in college at the time, and every resident of my dorm gathered around a tiny TV to watch), and most viewers came away thinking it was, again, the final word on the subject. A few political commentators, however, blasted it as nothing more than cheap, fear-mongering liberal propaganda.
Directed by Nicholas Meyer (Time After Time and a bunch of the early Star Trek films) and starring Jason Robards, John Lithgow, and Steve Guttenberg, the film focuses on the residents of Lawrence, Kansas, the perfect Spielbergian small town target, given it was surrounded by a half dozen Strategic Air Command missile installations.
Despite all the hype, when you get right down to it, it follows to a tee the strict format of a typical big-budget disaster film from a decade earlier. We’re introduced to an array of stock characters (a doctor, a barber, a farmer, a soldier, a young couple about to be married, a pregnant woman, a college student) whose paths will eventually cross thanks to the disaster in question. We learn about their everyday struggles and personal problems and dreams, as all the while in the background we hear ongoing news reports about the increased political tensions after the Soviets begin massing troops on the West German border.
Then at the halfway point ,instead of whacking them with an earthquake or a big fire or an asteroid, Meyer drops a couple ICBMs on them.
In the film’s second half, the main characters all try to cope. Unlike standard disaster films, though, which tended to celebrate the unexpected heroism and personal sacrifice of everyday folks, in the second half of The Day After, everyone slowly dies of radiation poisoning. The film then ends with a deliberate echo of the closing lines of Orson Welles’ 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast.
Viewers today might snicker at the network TV SFX employed for the extended Ground Zero sequence that closes Part I, but at the time they were really something, even if the mushroom clouds seem a little tepid when compared with all the stock footage of nuke tests we’d grown accustomed to. And in spite of all the political bitching that followed (mostly from diehard Reagan hawks), it’s worth noting that, perhaps in recognition of the president’s continued and unfathomable popularity, the blame here is put squarely on the Soviets as the aggressors who trigger the whole mess. It’s also telling that the ratings for Part I (which ended with the fiery decimation of central Kansas) were much higher than they were for Part II (where everyone’s hair falls out).
What is interesting about the film, even if it wasn’t the first, last, or greatest nuke film ever, is that it combines so many of the aforementioned sub-subgenres into a single narrative. We get glimpses of the political maneuvering through the news reports, scenes of the soldiers posted in the missile silos at the moment of truth, the growing anxiety and paranoia among the citizens on the street, the explosive panic when everyone realizes the missiles are coming, ten minutes of wild destruction and vaporized bodies, and the stunned post-nuke aftermath. It’s also the only major nuke film to take into account the Electromagnetic Pulse, which I always appreciated. In that way it is a kind of summation of everything that had come beforehand in terms of nuke cinema, even if it’s little more than another bright, fast, popcorn all-star disaster film with a downbeat ending.
Being far more suspicious of the Reagan agenda than most Americans at the time, in 1984 the BBC produced their own, much grimmer version of The Day After. Filmed in a more direct documentary style with a cast of mostly unknown actors, theirs focuses on the residents of Sheffield before, during and after a nuclear holocaust they neither started nor provoked. Unlike The Day After, however, Threads goes that extra post-nuke step by looking a few decades in the future, offering a glimpse at the long-term effects on a human population that’s been blasted back to the pre-Industrial Age.
In 1986 it was again the British who offered up what may well be the bleakest of the nuclear holocaust films (and certainly the bleakest feature-length cartoon on the subject) with When the Wind Blows, an animated film based on Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel. Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami, the film follows an elderly couple who, learning a nuclear war is imminent, use outdated government pamphlets to build a fallout shelter to protect themselves. Even though they survive the blast, it’s all pretty much downhill from there. It’s a gorgeous and heartbreaking film, and one which an awful lot of viewers claim had a much deeper and lasting impact on them than any of the others noted here. Plus it has a surprising soundtrack full of pop hits by David Bowie and Roger Waters!
It seems appropriate that the strangest and most unexpected nuclear paranoia film of the lot would come out in 1989, just as the Reagan Era, the Cold War, and the ’80s were coming to a close. What makes it all the weirder was that writer/director Steve De Jarnatt finished the script for Miracle Mile in 1979. For awhile the film was set to be the centerpiece of John Landis’ Twilight Zone: The Movie, but then Spielberg came aboard and wanted to change the ending, so De Jarnatt withdrew from the project. Other studios were likewise interested, but likewise wanted to change the ending. Finally, and bless him, De Jarnatt made the film himself the way he wanted to make it, weird and pitch black as it all was.
Miracle Mile looks and sounds like every other mainstream film made in the ’80s, with the requisite telling hairstyles and clothes, the slick blue neon sheen, and the Tangerine Dream score. To the unsuspecting, it might well have seemed at first like a John Hughes film, spending its opening 20 minutes as a familiar and cute romantic comedy about the budding relationship between jazz musician Anthony Edwards and diner waitress Mare Winningham. Then late one night Edwards picks up a ringing payphone and the frantic voice on the other end informs him the missiles are flying, and would hit Los Angeles in 70 minutes.
Suddenly the film becomes a darkly comic paranoid thriller reminiscent of Scorsese’s 1985 film After Hours, with Edwards searching LA for his new girlfriend so they can get to the airport and out of the city in time. All the while, the lingering question, as in Ladybug, Ladybug, is whether the call was real or some kind of prank. We’re left as much in the dark as Edwards, which only makes the ending that much more shocking. Within the subgenre it’s still another favorite, as it breaks all the standard Hollywood rules while hailing the end of the Reagan years and ‘80s filmmaking alike.
In 1990, with Reagan gone, the Soviet Union dismantling itself, and Germany reunified, the rest of the world let out a great, long-held sigh of relief. Not only because the ever-present threat of a global nuclear holocaust seemed to have passed for good, but also because after some forty years, all the cinematic doomsday scenarios seemed to have pretty well played themselves out. That’s why the made-for-cable By Dawn’s Early Light (based on the novel Trinity’s Child) could have easily been a tired and immediately outdated rehash of the classic 1964 triad of Seven Days in May, Fail-Safe and Strangelove, though again minus the jokes. It turned out, much to my amazement, to be a bit more than that, even as the references to earlier films are evident. Helping matters a great deal, the producers rounded up a stellar cast including Powers Boothe, James Earl Jones (who’d made his screen debut in Strangelove), Rip Torn, Darren McGavin, Rebecca De Mornay, and Martin Landau (as The President!).
The film opens with some promise. US-Soviet relations have thawed considerably, though not everyone is happy about this. When a Soviet dissident, hoping to destabilize the new relationship and overthrow the government, launches a missile from Turkey that detonates in the USSR, the automatic response is to launch a volley of missiles at the continental US. A good deal of yelling and running around follows, as both sides in the end (a la Fail-Safe) recognize it all as the result of a technical error, and step back after only a limited exchange with equitable damage.
That’s when things get complicated. While trying to escape Washington before a missile strike, the President’s helicopter crashes and he’s presumed dead. Thanks to a seriously ruptured chain of command, the next in line for the presidency is the Secretary of the Interior (Darren McGavin, in a role loosely based on Reagan’s own deeply unbalanced Interior Secretary James Watt). Surrounded by a Joint Chiefs mostly made up of strident old school Cold Warriors, he decides to take the pause in the exchange to charge on ahead with another massive strike and, you know, win the war. Problem is, Martin Landau isn’t quite dead yet.
The action intercuts between the shenanigans as McGavin tries to save America by destroying the world as Landau tries to stop him, and the antics on a bomber piloted by arrogant asshole Powers Boothe that’s headed into Soviet airspace.
So yes, there’s plenty of Strangelove and Seven Days and Fail-Safe here, but with a few important digressions. Most notably, it’s not the commies who are the villains here, but an American government filled with Jack D. Ripprs. There’s also that business, reflecting the real world ease of tensions, of a happy ending, though the believable and harrowing exchange in the film’s first half hour should be enough to satisfy any viewers craving a little mass destruction.
It was much better and much more thoughtful than expected, and made for an interesting way to mark the end of the Cold War and the genre. After that, any subsequent nuke films would be little more than fuzzy nostalgia.
Of all the films that came out during the Cold War proper, though, none is more deeply, quietly and coldly terrifying than Frederick Wiseman’s 1988 documentary, Missile. Wiseman, best known for his 1967 documentary Titicut Follies, somehow got the okay to bring his cameras into the Air Force’s 14-week training program for those young airmen who would be stationed in the missile silos and charged with turning the keys when called upon to do so. There is no commentary, no editorializing, no outside talking heads, just verite scenes inside assorted classrooms and at the shooting range, some shots of teachers and students chatting among themselves, and a few other candid interactions.
It’s striking that while Missile opens with an instructor mentioning the moral issues involved in wiping out tens of millions of innocent civilians in a blink, citing the My Lai massacre and the Holocaust as similar historical precedents, the discussion never really goes anywhere, as everyone agrees it’s all a matter of deterrence and following orders. With all ethical considerations neatly out of the way in five minutes, the rest of the course focuses on technical matters and shooting. Looking and listening to the kids in the program, the ones with direct access to the keys that would launch all those Minutemen, the single overwhelming and unnerving sense I came away with after seeing it again in 2016 is that it’s nothing short of a miracle we’re all still here today.
Nowadays, apart from the threats posed by a couple rogue nations with a handful of nukes or some crazy-eyed terrorists with a dirty bomb, the fear of a full-scale nuclear exchange and global obliteration no longer hangs over all of us every minute of every day. It all seems like so much ancient history. Oh wait, NO IT DOESN’T. Yet looking back on all these films, I can’t help but feel we’ve lost something important. They were, after all, some pretty exciting times.