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Flashback Five – Nuclear Showdowns in Film (Not a Bomb in the Bunch)


This week in Flashback Five, we’re exploring another news event through the world of movies — namely, North Korea’s unsuccessful (and yet, if you’re just going with scariness as your benchmark of accomplishment, somehow very successful) launch of its first long-range missile last week. Plenty of movies have turned missile crises into sources of anxiety — or comedy, in more than a few inventive instances — and they serve as an excellent looking-glass through which to scrutinize the news.

1. Thirteen Days (2000)
A fact-based film that intrigues and excites like the best fiction, Thirteen Days
re-tells the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis — during which Russian
nuclear missiles were stationed 90 miles from U.S. soil — from inside
the Kennedy White House. With Kevin Costner nicely underplaying his
role as special assistant Kenny O’Donnell, Thirteen Days is a
riveting look at nuclear brinksmanship as playing out on the global
stage. Obama & Co. would do well to put it in their Netflix queue.

2. Miracle Mile (1987)
You may not see the missiles in Miracle Mile, but the
they’re coming is what drives this gut-punch, real-time tale of Cold
War anxiety. L.A. everyman Anthony Edwards picks up a ringing telephone
outside a diner… and a hysterical voice on the other end, calling
from a missile silo, tells him to get out of the city within the next
70 minutes because the Russians and Americans have both launched their
nuclear arsenals. The movie’s decidedly unhappy ending was a good
indicator of the lingering national mood — which, given the ’87
recession, was probably not much different then that of today.

3. The Dead Zone (1981)
In David Cronenberg’s brilliant adaptation of the Stephen King
novel, accidental clairvoyant John Smith (Christopher Walken) shakes
the hand of local politician Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen)… and sees Stillson, in the future, launching an unprovoked first
strike from the Oval Office. Sheen is magnificent as a mad President in
the flash-forward, but of particular note is the Joe-Schmo-saves-the-world sub-plot, which must have held enormous appeal for a nation still in the throes of an out-of-control Cold War. Actually, you know what? It still does.

4. Testament (1983)
Lynne Littman’s movie, which came out before Gorbachev and more
peaceful times arrived on the scene, took things one step further: The
action kicks off with an unexplained nuclear detonation, and things
only get more intense from there: We see the agony of radiation
the devastating sorrow of survival, the end of everything in a moment
and the slow, sad dwindling of what remains. Earning an Oscar
nomination for Jane Alexander, Testament
is a tough, bleak piece of post-apocalyptic realism that brings
nuclear-age fears into sharp focus. View at your own discretion.

5.  Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977)
In 1977, the Vietnam War had technically just come to an end, but
the wound it inflicted on our nation was still very fresh (as, one
could argue, it remains today). One of the later movies of two-fisted
director Robert Aldrich ( The Dirty Dozen , The Flight of the Phoenix , The Longest Yard ),
this solid action-thriller follows an ex-General (Burt Lancaster) who
takes over a missile silo and threatens to launch unless the President
(Charles Durning) releases files that’ll put the administration’s
Vietnam-era sins out in public. Tense, taut and rippling with great
scenes, the movie serves as a chilling reminder of how confrontational
moves like Kim Jong Il’s last week don’t happen in an historical
vacuum. A worthy lesson to keep in mind.

Honorable Mentions:

1. Crimson Tide
(1995) wrung incredible drama out of nuclear missile
command-and-control protocols as Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman
clashed over whether or not to launch.

2. Spies Like Us
(1985) also launched for laughs, as incompetent spies Chevy Chase and
Dan Aykroyd accidentally fire and then deliberately destroy a Russian
missile headed for the USA.

3. Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day
may be better-remembered for their killer robots, but James Cameron’s
scenes of nuclear devastation left a lasting mark — and defined the
look of scifi on-screen for decades to come.

4. War Games (1983) found a young Matthew Broderick stumbling across a computer system that possessed the ability to launch a global thermonuclear war, in an alarming precursor to modern-day hacker culture.

4. Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) swept the Oscars that year thanks to it’s tension-relieving, uber-dark satirical take on the Cold War.

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