Destroyer of worlds: Top 10 Nuke Films
By Dennis Hartley
“The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.”
-J. Robert Oppenheimer
Today marks the 66th anniversary of mankind’s entry into that “different country”. So what have we learned since 8:15am, August 6, 1945-if anything? Well, God knows we’ve tried to harness the power of the atom to do “good”, however, as has been demonstrated as recently as this Tuesday last-that’s not working out so well (h/t to J.F.). Also, there are still enough nuclear weapons stockpiled around Planet Earth to knock it completely off its axis, and we have no guarantees that some nut job, whether enabled by the powers vested in him by the state or the voices in his head (doesn’t really matter-end result’s the same) won’t be in a position at some point in the future to let one or two or a hundred of ‘em rip, so pleasant dreams, everyone! So tonight, I thought I would offer up my picks for the top ten nuclear-themed films for your perusal. Yes, long-time readers, you are not hallucinating; I have done nuke-themed lists in the past, and some of these recycled titles are starting to look like they should go on my “greatest hits” collection-but this is my “ultimate” list, revised and cross-pollinated from the previous “sub-genre” nuclear lists that I have assembled. So in a way, it’s “new”. Clear? As usual, it’s in alphabetical order:
The Atomic Café- Whoopee we’re all gonna die! But along the way, we might as well have a few laughs. That seems to be the impetus behind this 1982 collection of cleverly reassembled footage culled from U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era (Mk 1), originally designed to educate the public about how to “survive” a nuclear attack (all you need to do is get under a desk…everyone knows that!). In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (which include the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers have also drawn from a rich vein of military training films, which reduce the possible effects of a nuclear strike to something akin to a barrage from, oh I don’t know- a really big field howitzer. Harrowing, yet quite entertaining. Written and directed by Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty (Kevin went on to co-direct the similarly constructed 1999 doc, The Last Cigarette, a takedown of the tobacco industry).
Black Rain-For obvious reasons, there have been a fair amount of postwar Japanese films dealing with the subject of nuclear destruction and its aftermath. Some take an oblique approach, like Gojira or Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear (see my reviews below). Others deal directly with survivors (referred to in Japan as hibakusha films). One of the top entries in the latter genre is this overlooked 1989 drama from Shomei Imamura (The Ballad of Narayama, Vengeance is Mine) which tells a relatively simple story of three Hiroshima survivors: an elderly couple and their niece, whose scars run much deeper than the physical. The narrative is sparse, yet contains more layers than an onion (especially when one takes the deep complexities of Japanese society under consideration). Interestingly, Imamura injects a polemic which points an accusatory finger in an unexpected direction.
The Day after Trinity-This thoughtful and absorbing film about the Manhattan Project and its subsequent fallout (literal, historical, political and philosophical) is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen, period. At its center, it is a profile of project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose moment of supreme scientific triumph (the successful test of the world’s first atomic bomb, just three weeks before one was dropped on Hiroshima) also brought him an unnerving precognition about the destructive horror he and his fellow physicists had enabled the military machine to unleash. Oppenheimer’s journey from “father of the atomic bomb” to anti-nuke activist (and having his life destroyed by the post-war “Red hysteria”) is a twisted and tragic tale of Shakespearean proportions. Also worth a look: Roland Joffe’s 1989 drama Fat Man and Little Boy, which focuses on the mercurial working relationship between Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) and the military director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves (Paul Newman); and an exemplary 1980 BBC miniseries called Oppenheimer (with Sam Waterston in the lead).
Desert Bloom-Although his off screen political 360 in recent years may have obfuscated this fact for some of us lib’ruls, Jon Voight remains one of America’s greatest actors-take a gander at this overlooked gem from 1986. Voight is an embittered, paranoid, alcoholic WW2 vet, making a living running a “last chance” gas station on the outskirts of Las Vegas in the early 1950s. He makes family life a nerve-wracking, day-to-day guessing-game for his long-suffering wife (JoBeth Williams) and three daughters. On a “good” day, you could say that Dad is an engaging, loving and even erudite fellow. But there are more “bad” days than good, and that’s when Mr. Hyde comes to visit. This is particularly stressful to his eldest daughter (whose character is actually the central protagonist of the story). Annabeth Gish makes an astonishing film debut in that role, holding her own against Voight in some very intense scenes. Ellen Barkin is outstanding as a free-spirited and empathetic aunt who comes to visit, setting off the emotional powder keg that has been brewing within this very dysfunctional family for some time. Director Eugene Corr and screenwriter Linda Remy draw insightful analogies between the fear and uncertainty of nuclear threat that permeated the country at the time (the story takes place on the eve of a nuclear test in the nearby desert, which figures significantly into the narrative) and the fear and uncertainly of growing up with an alcoholic parent. This is a unique, powerful and touching coming-of-age tale, beautifully made and splendidly acted by all.
Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb-“Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet (knock on wood) to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece about the tendency for men in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered to make all this shit up. In case you are one of the three people reading this who have never seen the film, it’s about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…”funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity (and oblivion) ensues. You will never see a cast like this again: Peter Sellers (absolutely brilliant, playing three major characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens (yee-HAW!), Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull (who can be seen breaking character as the Russian ambassador and cracking up during the scene where Strangelove’s prosthetic arm seems to take on a mind of its own). There are so many quotable lines, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks. I never tire of this film.
Fail-Safe- Dr. Strangelove…without the laughs. This no-nonsense 1964 thriller from the late great director Sidney Lumet takes a more clinical look at how a wild card scenario (in this case, a simple hardware malfunction) could ultimately trigger a nuclear showdown between the Americans and the Russians. Talky and a bit stagey; but riveting nonetheless thanks to Lumet’s skillful pacing (and trademark knack for bringing out the best in his actors), Walter Bernstein’s intelligent screenplay (with uncredited assistance from Peter George, who also co-scripted Dr. Strangelove) and a superb cast that includes Henry Fonda (a commanding performance, literally and figuratively), Walter Matthau, Fritz Weaver, and Larry Hagman. There’s no fighting in this war room (aside from one minor scuffle), but lots of suspense. The film’s final scene is chilling and unforgettable.
Gojira-It’s no secret that the “king of the monsters” was borne of fear; the fear of “the Bomb” as only the Japanese could have truly understood it back in 1954 (especially when one considers it was released only 9 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki). It’s also important to distinguish between this original Japanese cut of the film, and the relatively butchered version released in the U.S. in 1956 as Godzilla, King of the Monsters. That is because the original Japanese cut not only has a more haunting and darkly atmospheric quality, but carries a strong anti-nuke message as well (it’s an American H-bomb test that awakens the long-slumbering beast from his deep-sea hibernation). The U.S. cut downplays this subtext (replacing cut footage with inserts featuring Raymond Burr). This is why American audiences remained largely oblivious to the fact that the film was inspired by a real-life 1954 incident involving a Japanese fishing vessel (“The Lucky Dragon”). The boat was in an alleged “safe zone” near one of the Bikini Atoll bomb tests conducted by the U.S. in March of that year. Many of the crewmembers received serious burns, and one of the injured eventually died of radiation sickness. This original 1954 Toho version is the first and the best of what was to ultimately become a silly franchise.
I Live in Fear-This 1955 Akira Kurosawa film was the great director’s follow-up to The Seven Samurai, and arguably one of his most overlooked efforts. It’s a melodrama concerning an aging foundry owner (Toshiro Mifune, disguised in exaggeratingly theatrical Coke-bottle glasses and silver-frosted crew cut) who literally “lives in fear” of the H-bomb, to the point of obsession. Convinced that the “safest” place on Earth from radioactive fallout is in South America, he tries to convince his wife and grown children to pull up stakes and resettle on a farm in Brazil. His children, who have families of their own and rely on their father’s factory for income, are not so hot on that idea. In fact, they take him to family court and have him declared incompetent. This sends Mifune’s character spiraling into madness. Or are his fears really so “crazy”? It is one of Mifune’s most powerful and moving performances. Kurosawa instills shades of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” into the narrative (a well he drew from again some 30 years later, in Ran).
Testament- Originally an “American Playhouse” presentation, this film was released to theatres and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander (she lost to Shirley MacLaine). Director Lynne Littman takes a low key, deliberately paced approach, but pulls no punches. Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where the afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that a number of nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a whole different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike. There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; a wise decision by the filmmakers because it helps us zero in on the essential humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the histrionics and melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amidst such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it all so believably horrifying and difficult to shake off.
As the children (and adults) of Hamlin succumb to the inevitable scourge of radiation sickness and steadily “disappear”, like the children of the ‘fairy tale’ Hamlin, you are left haunted by the final line of the school production of “The Pied Piper” glimpsed earlier in the film…“Your children are not dead. They will return when the world deserves them.”
Threads-Out of all of the selections on my list, this is arguably the grimmest and most sobering “nuclear nightmare” film of them all. Originally produced for British television in 1984, it aired that same year here in the states on TBS (say what you will about Ted Turner-but I always admired him for being the only American TV exec with the balls to run it). Mick Jackson directs with an uncompromising sense of docu-realism that makes The Day After (the similarly-themed U.S. television film from the previous year) look like a Teletubbies episode. The story takes a run-of-the-mill, medium sized city (Sheffield, England) and shows what would happen to its populace during and after a nuclear strike…in graphic detail. The filmmakers make it very clear that, while this is a dramatization, it is not designed to “entertain” you in any sense of the word. Let me put it this way-don’t get too attached to any of the main characters. The message is simple and direct-nothing good comes out of a nuclear conflict. It’s a living, breathing Hell for all concerned-and anyone “lucky” enough to survive will soon wish they were fucking dead.