Five Movies Worth Watching About the Threat of Nuclear War – Council on Foreign Relations

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 currentlypossess nuclear weapons, and several others potentiallyaspire to acquire them. TheBulletin of Atomic Scientistshas its famed Doomsday Clock set to100 seconds before midnight, the closest it has ever been to the twelve oclock hour. So it seems appropriate this week to recommend films that remind us of the threat we prefer to forget.

We wont rehashall the ruleswe follow in making recommendations. Just remember that we recommend a movieonly once. SoDr. Strangeloveisnt on this weeks list because it was on our list offive 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.

The Water's Edge

Crimson Tide(1995). The submarine USSAlabamaheads to sea after rebels seize nuclear missile sites in eastern Russia. While on patrol, the submarine receives part of a command that mayor may notbe an order to launch its nuclear missiles against the rebel-controlled sites. TheAlabamascaptain 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 byGene Hackman, is too eager to act, the cautious, young XO, played byDenzel Washington, stages a mutiny. The fate of the world hangs in the balance. DirectorTony Scottleverages the submarines close quarters tohighlightthe isolation and tension of the crew. WatchingCrimson Tideis even more anxiety-inducing if you know that the plot isnt far-fetched. During the Cuban missile crisis,commanders aboard a Soviet submarine clashedover whether to fire their vessels nuclear-armed torpedo after they lost contact with Moscow. Perhaps as Washingtons character contends, in the nuclear world, the true enemy is war itself. You can watchCrimson TideonAmazon Prime,Google Play, orYouTube.

Miracle Mile(1988).Miracle Milebegins as a standard romance: Harry (Anthony Edwards) meets Julie (Mare Winningham) at a caf, and its 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 Milewas released at the tail end of the Cold War, when duck-and-cover drills had faded from U.S. schools but latentfears of a nuclear attackpersisted. DirectorSteve De Jarnettheightens the audiences anxiety by never cutting away from Harrys 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 Hawaiilearned two years ago. Thankfully, that early-morning emergency warning was a mistake. You can watchMiracle MileonAmazon PrimeoriTunes.

On the Beach(1959). How would you spend your last days if you knew the world was ending? This is the question that drivesOn the Beach, an adaptation of Nevil Shutes 1957best-selling novel. A nuclear war has devastated the Northern Hemisphere, leaving Australia as the worlds 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 submarineUSSSawfishheads off to discover its sourceand a possible reason for hope. Looking to stress the films universal theme and capitalize on the star power of its castwhich includesGregory Peck,Ava Gardner, andFred AstairedirectorStanley Kramerscheduled the movies premiere on the same day ineighteen different citiesacross the world, including Moscow. You can findOn the Beachon theDigital ArchiveoriTunes.

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 theCuban missile crisis.Thirteen Daysdramatizes 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 Greenwoodas President John F. Kennedy andKevin Costneras advisor Kenneth ODonnell 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. DirectorRoger Donaldsontakes a fewliberties with history, but University of Virginia professor Philip Zekilow observed that the film is accurate where it counts. You can watchThirteen DaysonAmazon Prime,Google Play, orYouTube.

More on:

Nuclear Weapons

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

Wars and Conflict

WarGames(1983). A youngMatthew Broderickplays 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. DirectorJohn Badhamuses 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.WarGamespremiered the heroic hacker archetype andinspired a generationof budding techies. After seeing the movie at Camp David, President Ronald Reagangrew concernedthat a similar hack could happen in real life. That led him to issue the first national security directive on computer security. You can watchWarGamesonAmazon Prime,Google Play, orYouTube.

For bonus picks this week, we turned to CFRs two visitingStanton Nuclear Security Fellows,Jooeun KimandJoseph 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 Safesshowing at the box office washurtby the release just ten months earlier ofDr. Strangelove, which had a similar plot but with a satiric edge. (Stanley Kubrick,Dr. Strangeloves director,suedthe producers ofFail Safefor plagiarism and won an agreement that delayed its release.) DirectorSidney Lumetdistinguishes his drama, however, with thehumanity of its charactersand anarguably smarter takeon how a nuclear war might start. Jooeun says: Fail Safeis 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 findFail SafeonAmazon Prime,Google Play, orYouTube.

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 dominationall in the name of peace. The film is based on the 1967 novelColossusby D. F. Jones and directed byJoseph Sargent. Joseph says: Although less well-known thanDr. Strangelove,Colossus: The Forbin Projectis another classic satire on nuclear war with a similarly negative view of humanity's future. WhileDr.Strangelovecaptured the essence of mutually assured destruction, the focus inColossuson out of control AI makes it an especially prescient warning for today's world. You can watchColossus: The Forbin ProjectonHoopla,Vimeo, orXfinity Stream.

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

Check out our other foreign-policy movie recommendations:

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Five Movies Worth Watching About the Threat of Nuclear War - Council on Foreign Relations

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