With the world events being what they are these days, my wife and I (she, half-heartedly) decided to watch a different movie every night with the theme of nuclear war. I researched different lists of “Best of” nuclear war movies, and further pared down our list by only suggesting ones that had a Rotten Tomatoes score of 85 or higher.
First night: We watched Testament. Very grim. Sort of inspired us to start thinking about what we should do if the worst should happen in a city nearby.
Second night: We watched When the Wind Blows. Very grim, and animated. Based on the graphic novel of the same name. Further inspired us to get some things prepared (stock up on a couple weeks of canned goods, water, batteries, etc.). Not a bad idea to have these things on-hand even if nuclear war doesn’t hit.
Third night: We watched Threads. Holy shit, the grimmest of the grim. Went to bed with the realization that a couple weeks of canned beans and potassium iodide pills won’t save us and humanity is just fucking doomed, DOOMED, DOOMED!!!
Our little experiment ended after three nights and we spent the next few nights detoxing with 30 Rock and Seinfeld, retreating into the television security blankets of our happy youth.
Question: Are there any movies about nuclear war grimmer and/or more realistic than these three? Not that I’m going to watch these horrors, I’m just curious.
The Day After is kind of the canonical nuclear war movie in the United States. Reputedly, Reagan previewed it and was instrumental in his discussion with Gorbachev about nuclear disarmament at the 1986 Reykjavík Summit. (It also unfortunately stoked his enthusiasm for the Strategic Defense Initiative despite the massive technical problems and absurd expense of even a marginally functional system.)
Special Bulletin is a TV movie about nuclear terrorism (with a twist). It is presented in ‘breaking news’ format so there are minimal special effects but despite notices at regular intervals that it was just a fictional accounting apparently a bunch of people thought it to be a real news alert.
Of course, * Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb* is the classical ‘satirical’ film about nuclear war, albeit containing a surprising amount of real doctrine and deterrence theory (Kubrick lifted liberally from RAND and Hudson Institute strategic Herman Kahn’s lectures on deterrence including the ‘Doomsday Device’ that Kahn presented as a counterargument to Assured Destruction). “Peace Is Our Profession” was the actual motto of the USAF Strategic Air Command, the Soviets did later implement a semi-autonomous counterstrike system to respond to a surprise attack that it totally failed to inform the US and NATO about, and while we’ve never had a General Ripper-like figure initiate an unprovoked nuclear attack for fear of the contamination of his “bodily fluids”, until the early ‘Seventies the access codes on the primitive Permissive Action Link system on Minuteman ICBMs were set to “00000000”, ensuring that no missile would fail to launch because of lost codes but also placing the ability to conduct a launch directly in the hands of ICBM wing commanders. No word on whether the Soviet ambassador was able to surreptitiously take pictures of the ‘Big Board’ but there was a Site R (Rock Raven Mountain Complex in Pennsylvania) stocked to allow survival of the president and his family underground to maintain continuity of government.
Actually not the same source; Fail Safe was based on the novel Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, whereas Dr. Strangelove was based on Red Alert by Peter George. Both novels had similar plots which resulted in a suit for copyright infringement and out-of-court settlement (although there was no evidence that Burdick and Wheeler had actually read George’s novel). Fail Safe is a good enough movie for its day although I’d argue that the 2000 TV movie remake is actually better acted, but Dr. Strangelove really presses the absurdity of the situation that one person (or in the case of the Soviets, an automated computer system) could be given authority to command an apocalyptic attack. Although the film is played for laughs, especially George C. Scott’s General Turgidson and Slim Pickins Colonel Kong (and of course Peter Sellers), it is filmed in a deadpan way in the style of a John Frankenheimer potboiler, and all of the supporting actors play straight to the absurdity.
I finally saw “Special Bulletin” when it showed up on YouTube a few years ago. Good movie, and I could see why some people might have thought it was “real” at the time (1983). However, it used no-name actors and news networks that didn’t exist either, even on cable, and the dead giveaway was that it was not in real time.
Grave of the Fireflies? It’s a semi-autobiographical animated account of Japanese kids in the waning days of World War II. I own a copy but I’ve heard it’s so grim, I’ve yet to rise to the occasion to watch it. Can anyone else attest to its realism?
“Grave of the Fireflies” is not related to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (it depicts the firebombing of Kobe).
The movie is based on an autobiographical novel. Almost everything that appears in that movie (and in the novel) happened to the author of the novel (with a very obvious exception, which appears in the story very likely as an expression of survivor’s guilt).
I have watched the movie. It is pure art, and I found it magnificent, absolutely riveting and absolutely heartbreaking. I have it, and I do not think I will watch it again. Once was enough. And, I repeat, it is a top quality movie. But emotionally overwhelming, at least for me.
If you want a Japanese animated movie that deals with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the go-to film is “Barefoot Gen” (1983), based on the manga of the same title by Keiji Nakazawa, who himself was an eye-witness and survivor of the Hiroshima bombing at the age of 6. Word of warning: “Barefoot Gen” is HORRIFIC and has the potential to seriously mess you up.
And also, it was on the network schedule and promoted as an upcoming TV program … I watched its original airing in my college dorm room, I was fascinated, and thought it was a great concept (I think I’ve seen bits of it more recently and it doesn’t age well).
Ed Flanders (St. Elsewhere) wasn’t exactly a “no-name” actor in 1983.
But I would agree, if you came across the movie in the middle without any previous awareness of it, it’s possible to be caught up in the verite style and take it as real.