from The Water's Edge

Five Movies Worth Watching About the Threat of Nuclear War

Images clockwise from the top left: Thirteen Days/Rotten Tomatoes; Crimson Tide/Amazon; Fail Safe/IMDB; Colossus: The Forbin Project/TMDB; On the Beach/CineMaterial; WarGames/Amazon; Miracle Mile/YouTube.
Images clockwise from the top left: Thirteen Days/Rotten Tomatoes; Crimson Tide/Amazon; Fail Safe/IMDB; Colossus: The Forbin Project/TMDB; On the Beach/CineMaterial; WarGames/Amazon; Miracle Mile/YouTube.

Each Friday this summer, we suggest foreign-policy-themed movies worth watching. This week: films examining the risks of nuclear weapons.

August 7, 2020

Images clockwise from the top left: Thirteen Days/Rotten Tomatoes; Crimson Tide/Amazon; Fail Safe/IMDB; Colossus: The Forbin Project/TMDB; On the Beach/CineMaterial; WarGames/Amazon; Miracle Mile/YouTube.
Images clockwise from the top left: Thirteen Days/Rotten Tomatoes; Crimson Tide/Amazon; Fail Safe/IMDB; Colossus: The Forbin Project/TMDB; On the Beach/CineMaterial; WarGames/Amazon; Miracle Mile/YouTube.
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Yesterday marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. This Sunday marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the bombing on Nagasaki. Thankfully, nuclear weapons have never been used since. However, nuclear war remains an ever-present danger. Nine countries currently possess nuclear weapons, and several others potentially aspire to acquire them. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has its famed Doomsday Clock set to 100 seconds before midnight, the closest it has ever been to the twelve o’clock hour. So it seems appropriate this week to recommend films that remind us of the threat we prefer to forget. 

We won’t rehash all the rules we follow in making recommendations. Just remember that we recommend a movie only once. So Dr. Strangelove isn’t on this week’s list because it was on our list of five foreign-policy satires worth watching.

More on:

Nuclear Weapons

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

Wars and Conflict

Here are our five recommendations, plus bonus picks from two colleagues.

Crimson Tide (1995). The submarine USS Alabama heads to sea after rebels seize nuclear missile sites in eastern Russia. While on patrol, the submarine receives part of a command that may—or may not—be an order to launch its nuclear missiles against the rebel-controlled sites. The Alabama’s captain and its executive officer (XO) clash over whether to proceed with the attack or wait for additional information. Convinced that the combat-tested captain, played by Gene Hackman, is too eager to act, the cautious, young XO, played by Denzel Washington, stages a mutiny. The fate of the world hangs in the balance. Director Tony Scott leverages the submarine’s close quarters to highlight the isolation and tension of the crew. Watching Crimson Tide is even more anxiety-inducing if you know that the plot isn’t far-fetched. During the Cuban missile crisis, commanders aboard a Soviet submarine clashed over whether to fire their vessel’s nuclear-armed torpedo after they lost contact with Moscow. Perhaps as Washington’s character contends, “in the nuclear world, the true enemy is war itself.” You can watch Crimson Tide on Amazon PrimeGoogle Play, or YouTube.

Miracle Mile (1988). Miracle Mile begins as a standard romance: Harry (Anthony Edwards) meets Julie (Mare Winningham) at a café, and it’s love at first sight. The cheery start turns sour when Harry accidentally receives a panicked phone call warning of an imminent nuclear attack. He has one hour to find Julie and flee to safety. Miracle Mile was released at the tail end of the Cold War, when duck-and-cover drills had faded from U.S. schools but latent fears of a nuclear attack persisted. Director Steve De Jarnett heightens the audience’s anxiety by never cutting away from Harry’s perspective: “You are Harry Washello,” De Jarnett said. These days, a warning about an incoming nuclear attack is less likely to come through a pay phone than through our smart phones, as people in Hawaii learned two years ago. Thankfully, that early-morning emergency warning was a mistake. You can watch Miracle Mile on Amazon Prime or iTunes

On the Beach (1959). How would you spend your last days if you knew the world was ending? This is the question that drives On the Beach, an adaptation of Nevil Shute’s 1957 best-selling novel. A nuclear war has devastated the Northern Hemisphere, leaving Australia as the world’s only safe haven. As deadly radioactive fallout steadily drifts toward the continent, many survivors resign themselves to their fate. But when a radio signal is detected coming from the rubble of the west coast of the United States, the nuclear submarine USS Sawfish heads off to discover its source—and a possible reason for hope. Looking to stress the film’s universal theme and capitalize on the star power of its cast—which includes Gregory PeckAva Gardner, and Fred Astaire—director Stanley Kramer scheduled the movie’s premiere on the same day in eighteen different cities across the world, including Moscow. You can find On the Beach on the Digital Archive or iTunes

Thirteen Days (2000). For thirteen days in 1962, the world stood at the brink of nuclear war as the United States and Soviet Union faced off in the Cuban missile crisisThirteen Days dramatizes the view from inside the Kennedy administration after the discovery that the Soviets were deploying medium-range nuclear missiles just ninety miles off the U.S. coast. We know how the crisis ends. Still, Bruce Greenwood as President John F. Kennedy and Kevin Costner as advisor Kenneth O’Donnell convey the intense anxiety of those thirteen days as they desperately search for a peaceful solution while trying to maintain the upper hand against the Soviets. Director Roger Donaldson takes a few liberties with history, but University of Virginia professor Philip Zekilow observed that the film is “accurate where it counts.” You can watch Thirteen Days on Amazon PrimeGoogle Play, or YouTube.

More on:

Nuclear Weapons

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

Wars and Conflict

WarGames (1983). A young Matthew Broderick plays teenager David Lightman, a technology whiz who nearly sparks World War III when he hacks into a computer network and begins playing an interactive game. Ominously titled “Global Thermonuclear War,” it is actually a program running on a U.S. military supercomputer. The program thinks David is the Soviet Union preparing to launch a nuclear attack, so it tries to strike first. Director John Badham uses lighthearted humor to explore the deadly serious concept of mutual assured destruction as the teen tries to stop the United States from retaliating against a false threat. WarGames premiered the heroic hacker archetype and inspired a generation of budding techies. After seeing the movie at Camp David, President Ronald Reagan grew concerned that a similar hack could happen in real life. That led him to issue the first national security directive on computer security. You can watch WarGames on Amazon PrimeGoogle Play, or YouTube.

For bonus picks this week, we turned to CFR’s two visiting Stanton Nuclear Security FellowsJooeun Kim and Joseph Torigian. Jooeun, who specializes in nuclear nonproliferation in East Asia, recommends: 

Fail Safe (1964). When a communications system error sends U.S. bombers with nuclear payloads to attack Moscow, the president of the United States (Henry Fonda) scrambles to prevent doomsday. Fail Safe’s showing at the box office was hurt by the release just ten months earlier of Dr. Strangelove, which had a similar plot but with a satiric edge. (Stanley KubrickDr. Strangelove’s director, sued the producers of Fail Safe for plagiarism and won an agreement that delayed its release.) Director Sidney Lumet distinguishes his drama, however, with the humanity of its characters and an arguably smarter take on how a nuclear war might start. Jooeun says: “Fail Safe is a somber reminder of how machines can fail and cause nuclear accidents. It also reminds us how rational decision-making by the commander-in-chief is so important in stopping a nuclear war and gaining trust even from an adversary. The depiction of the political scientist in the movie reminds me personally that scholarly and theoretical contributions to nuclear nonproliferation are important, but in the war room it is practical application that matters most.” You can find Fail Safe on Amazon PrimeGoogle Play, or YouTube.

Joseph, who works on Chinese and Russian foreign policy, suggests: 

Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970). Hoping to avoid any human error that could lead to war, the United States entrusts its nuclear arsenal to a new supercomputer: Colossus. In appropriate science-fiction fashion, the artificial intelligence (AI) soon outsmarts its creators and connects to a similar electronic brain built in the Soviet Union. The AIs threaten both countries with nuclear war if scientists interfere in their pursuit of world domination—all in the name of peace. The film is based on the 1967 novel Colossus by D. F. Jones and directed by Joseph Sargent. Joseph says: “Although less well-known than Dr. StrangeloveColossus: The Forbin Project is another classic satire on nuclear war with a similarly negative view of humanity's future. While Dr. Strangelove captured the essence of mutually assured destruction, the focus in Colossus on out of control AI makes it an especially prescient warning for today's world.” You can watch Colossus: The Forbin Project on HooplaVimeo, or Xfinity Stream

Next week we will recommend World War II films worth watching. 

Check out our other foreign-policy movie recommendations: 

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