The Cold War has provided the grist for rich histories, enlightening memoirs, and terrific novels. It has also provided source material for some great movies. Here in alphabetical order are my ten favorite English-language films about the Cold War:
- Charlie Wilson’s War (2007). Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Ned Beatty, and Emily Blunt. That’s a stellar cast by any standard. Charlie Wilson’s War tells the true story of a hard living Texas congressman who in the early 1980s allies with a maverick CIA agent to provide more and better weapons to Afghan freedom fighters. He has surprising success, and the Soviets eventually withdraw from Afghanistan. Wilson is left wondering, however, if the White House’s lack of interest in a post-Soviet Afghanistan might bring about new troubles.
- Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). The American Film Institute ranks Dr. Strangelove as the twenty-sixth greatest American film of all time. Stanley Kubrick’s classic satirizes the logic of the nuclear age. Based on Peter George’s 1958 novel Red Alert, Kubrick mocks the politicians and military officials who hold the fate of humanity in their hands. Peter Sellers excels in three roles: a British air force officer, the president of the United States, and the eponymous doctor. George C. Scott, Slim Pickens, Sterling Hayden, and Keenan Wynn all play unforgettable characters. And yes, that is the voice of Darth Vader and Mufasa as a B-52 bombardier. Just remember: there’s no fighting allowed in the war room.
- Fail-Safe (1964). The unthinkable happens: U.S. Strategic Command detects an intrusion into American airspace. Air Force bombers scramble to “fail-safe” points to await further orders. The alert turns out to be false alarm, but a “go code” is accidentally sent to one group of bombers. Efforts to abort the mission fail, and the bombers head for their target: Moscow. The president of the United States now faces a horrible problem: how does he prevent the Soviets from unleashing a retaliatory strike that will guarantee an all-out nuclear war? Fail-Safe premiered two years after the Cuban missile crisis, and it played on America’s very real fear of nuclear war. The film was directed by Sidney Lumetand starred Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, and Fritz Weaver. It is based on the 1962 book Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. If Burdick’s name sounds familiar, he is the coauthor of one of the books on my list of the top ten Cold War novels, The Ugly American.
- On The Beach (1959). The unthinkable has happened—a full-scale nuclear war. Much of the northern hemisphere has been laid to waste. The American submarine USS Sawfish survives the war and takes refuge in Melbourne, Australia. The Australians are living on borrowed time; deadly radioactive fallout is slowly headed their way. A ray of hope appears amidst the gloom when a radio signal is detected coming from Seattle, Washington. The Sawfish heads out to discover the source of the signal—and the fate of humanity. Gregory Peck plays the commander of the submarine USS Sawfish, while Ava Gardner plays his love-interest in this film directed by Stanley Kramer.
- The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). The Cold War spawned a lot of science fiction films that were thinly veiled morality tales about the confrontation between the East and West. The best of all of them is The Day the Earth Stood Still. An alien spaceship lands on the Ellipse in front of the White House. A humanoid alien, Klaatu, emerges from the spaceship. When he opens a device he intends as a gift, the U.S. military opens fire. He heals his gunshot wounds with what to humans is a magical salve. He attempts to warn humanity that their instinct for violence will lead to their doom, but by the end of the film it is not clear that his audience has heard his message. (By the way, avoid the 2008 remake. It is, to be polite, not good.)
- The Hunt for Red October (1990). Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Sam Neil, James Earl Jones, Stellan Skarsgărd, and Fred Thompson. That’s a lot of acting talent. Marry it to Tom Clancy’s great yarn about a Soviet submarine captain trying to defect to the West with his submarine and without letting his crew in on his plans and you have a riveting movie. The fact that Connery plays the Soviet submarine captain a quarter century after escaping Soviet assassins as James Bond in the wonderful From Russia With Love gives The Hunt for Red October an extra dash of interest.
- The Manchurian Candidate (1962). The American Film Institute ranks director John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate as the sixty-seventh greatest American film of all time. Based on Richard Condon’s 1959 book of the same name, the moviefeatures Frank Sinatra as Major Bennett Marco, a Korean war veteran who has recurring dreams that one of his subordinates, Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw, played by Laurence Harvey, shot two U.S. soldiers. What he slowly comes to understand is that Shaw has been brainwashed to participate in a plot, orchestrated by his mother (played by Angela Lansbury in very un-Murder She Wrote manner), to kill an American presidential candidate. (Take a pass on the 2004 re-make, which was recast as taking place during the Gulf War.)
- The Mouse That Roared (1959). The fictional Duchy of Grand Fenwick finds itself on the brink of bankruptcy. The prime minister decides that his only choice is to declare war on the United States. He knows that Grand Fenwick will lose, but he calculates that the Americans will provide much-needed economic assistance when the war ends. But through a fluke, the Duchy captures a doomsday weapon. Suddenly the world is turned upside down as the weak dictate to the powerful. As he would later do in Dr. Strangelove, Peter Sellers plays multiple roles. Jean Seberg plays a love interest. Jack Arnold directed.
- The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965). Martin Ritt did justice to John le Carré’s terrific the1963 spy thriller. Richard Burton plays a burned-out British spy sent to East Germany for one last mission. His task turns out to be far more complicated than he expected. The New York Times review hailed it as “realistic, and believable, too.” It is also full of deceit, cynicism, hypocrisy, and betrayal. In short, nothing is what it seems.
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, and Benedict Cumberbatch star in this terrific production of the classic John le Carré novel. Spymaster George Smiley is called out of retirement in the early 1970s to determine whether the Soviets have placed a mole at the top of Britain’s secret intelligence service. In the process, he is forced to question his friendships and to confront the most intimate of betrayals.
If I’ve missed your favorite Cold War film, please mention it in the comments below.
For more suggested resources on the Cold War, check out the other posts in this series: