The Best Movies About Nuclear War

The Cold War is back, so let’s revisit some apocalyptic classics

It seems only yesterday the Berlin Wall came down, kumbayas abounded and we were all wondering what to do with the “peace dividend”. Now faster then Slim Pickens can wave a ten gallon hat and whoop “Yee Haw!” we’re back in the saddle again for Cold War 2.0.

So take a moment from doom-scrolling the news and consider for a moment how film artists captured the zeitgeist of an earlier era wherein superpowers poked and prodded each other testing the limits of mutually-assured destruction. Say what you want about impending nuclear Armageddon, it does produce some decent entertainment.

Miracle Mile (1988 re-released on DVD 2016)

An epic nuclear Armageddon rom-com with an awesome Tangerine Dream soundtrack. Commercially unsuccessful when released, this very 1980s–the neon, the colors, the Cold War–is now a critic’s darling and cult favorite. It also showcases arguably one of the greatest ensembles of character actors ever assembled.

Steve De Jarnatt’s notorious screenplay for this strange bird of a film went whispered about, acclaimed and unmade for almost a decade. Once Warner Brothers optioned it, it lingered in development hell for another three years. Finally, De Jarnatt, at that point a writer/director, went full auteur, bought back his baby, and went looking for funding.

In Miracle Mile, a trombone player, Anthony Edwards, and waitress, Mare Winningham meet cute at the La Brea Tarpits. Within 24 hours the plucky duo learn through answering a random call coming into something the olds called “a payphone” of an impending nuclear attack on Los Angeles. And so begins a fun-filled, frantic, colorful-character-clogged, sometimes death-dealing scramble to escape La La Land.

Sadly, and here’s the spoiler, the love struck couple on the cusp of success perish when their helicopter ride out of hell is felled by one of those darn EMP pulses. The short-circuited copter crash lands in the very tarpits at which they met less than 24 hours earlier.

One of the odder or more poignant endings in rom-com history thus ensues as the black goo slowly oozes into the cockpit while the trapped, couple, now content in their love, clasp hands while lit by an atomic glow, discussing how their entwined bones may someday form part of a Pompeii-style museum exhibit.

Colossus, The Forbin Project (1970)

“The frightening story of the day man built himself out of existence.”

An early warning on getting AI involved in the the deployment of hair trigger nuclear weapons systems that may need to react faster than humans can think. This theme, that the Terminator series and War Games later echoed, is entertainingly laid out in this 1970 film which, while not quite 2001 A Space Odyssey or even the much underrated The Andromeda Strain–two films also not so keen on artificial intelligence–is well worth a look.

Come for the endless array of glowing buttons and sleek here come the seventies computer design. Stay for the evolution of the disturbing relationship that develops when America’s supreme newly sentient supercomputer shocks its creators with the news that “There is another system.” and then seeks solace with the only other entity on the planet that can truly understand it; the Soviet Union’s supreme, now also sentient, super computer, Guardian. Try taking away the phone privileges of these two and you’ve got trouble.

World War III (1998 Germany)

“Timely” is not quite the word. An ingenious and engaging alt history fictional documentary produced by German network ZDF that explores what might have happened if hardline Soviet hawks had removed Mikhail Gorbachev in the leadup to the tumultuous events that led to the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall and the USSR.

Rich in well-researched revelations of the contingency plans both sides had on the books, and no doubt still do, in case things went south, the film brilliantly lays out at an almost granular level the inescapable gradual escalation of conflicts triggering an apocalyptic nuclear exchange. A center piece in the frantic but ultimately fruitless search for an “off ramp” en route to Armageddon is the gripping depiction of a preliminary and penultimate conventional warfare battle between NATO and Soviet forces on the border between East and West Europe.

The cine verité mood of the film includes the extensive use of actual news clips from the time and statements by the leaders from both sides of that era who actually shepherded the planet through that historic era without ending civilization as we know it.

Crimson Tide (1995)

The action in Crimson Tide takes place almost entirely in the claustrophic confines of a nuclear submarine. This rousing Jerry Bruckheimer production is part of the much more fun subgenre of nuclear Armageddon movies wherein nuclear conflagrations entertainingly threaten but the protagonists narrowly avoid them.

Gene Hackman stars as the sub’s trigger-happy commander while Denzel Washington plays the subordinate who refuses to go along with the Hackman character’s decision to go nuclear.

Actual events that occurred on a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis inspired film’s scenario: a submarine cut off from exterior communications and receiving conflicting signals having to determine whether to launch a nuclear attack that could well initiate a thermonuclear war .

Given the uncertainty of the situation, and despite facing depth charges, dropped by U.S. ships intent on forcing the vessel to surface, Vasily Harkipov, a senior officer on the Soviet sub, refused to provide his required consent for the launch of the vessel’s nuclear weaponry. Washington’s character does likewise in this Hollywood adaptation and after a lot of close quarters conflict and ‘Top Gun’ style flourishes all ends well.

On the Beach (1959 and 2000)

Another nuclear apocalypse, another submarine. Based on the 1957 novel of the same name, On the Beach is perhaps the most contemplative film about the devastation that follows nuclear war. The images of that doomed, forlorn submarine, the Sawfish sailing the still waters of a near dead planet are iconic.

Most of the drama unfolds while the submarine’s, crew temporarily stationed in a surviving, but not for long, Australia, interact with the appropriately anxious and apprehensive locals. Nerves fray and the control power of social mores whither as the enormous cloud of toxic radioactive dust slowly enveloping the planet approaches “the land of the long weekend”. Crikey!

The 1959 film starring Gregory Peck shows its age in a few places but overall holds up well. The 2000 remake produced by Showtime re-configures events to have the final conflict take place between China and the U.S. But the end result is the same. Both versions do a good job depicting the dilemmas of a population trying to decide what to do in the few months they have left. So much for those relatively cheery Mad Max post-atomic war scenarios.

The Day After (1983)

A rare example of an entertainment product having real geopolitical impact. This two-hour masterful TV drama broadcast during one of the peak periods of nuclear tension between the USSR and the US was seen by and influenced leaders and populations in both countries. In the quaint language of its time it was truly “must-see” TV, and everyone saw it, turning it into the most-watched program in network TV history.

In almost scholarly detail The Day After tells the bleak tale of a lock step progression of cascading actions, miscalculations and reactions that lead to a nuclear missile exchange, which the film chillingly displays. These ICBMs, the implications of which are clear to all who observe them overhead, are almost more terrifying thundering across the sky with their thick billowing contrails in tow than exploding. Importantly, the film does not stop with the missile exchange but portrays what happens the day and the days shortly after that. It’s not pleasant.

The film is ambiguous because it never becomes clear, since communications are down, whether the survivor’s city–Kansas City, Missouri–was destroyed with the rest of the world or just had the bad luck of being selected as part of a “limited” tit for tat exchange. One suspects the various sides already have such lists drawn up.

Jason Robards stars as a busy physician absorbed in the everyday of family and work who moves from vaguely paying attention to the droning coverage of an escalating conflict in far off Eastern Europe to joining a tangled exodus of soon to be useless vehicles fleeing a burning city. Having lost his family and his idyllic suburban home, knowing not what else to do, he follows the hero’s path. Robards’ character stoically works the problem and the endless ultimately doomed casualties. Then, as the insurmountable scope of the crisis becomes disturbingly clear, and his own body distressingly ravaged by radiation begins to fail, he does something we rarely see heroes do in the movies. He gives up.

Black Rain (1989)

Not to be confused with White Light/ Black Rain, the equally worthy award winning 2007 Japanese documentary examining the ongoing nuclear legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, This artful and moving black and white Japanese film examines the undertold story of the long-term survivors of the Hiroshima blast. Unlike The Day After it was based on actual events and gains power from that. The film traces the lives of a young girl and her uncle and aunt who survived the blast only to encounter terrible disease and essentially the shunning of “hibakusha”; those suffering from radiation sickness in the difficult years that followed. The girl’s uncle and aunt seek to arrange a marriage for their young niece but once the families of potential suitors learn she was in Hiroshima the day of the blast, they reject her.

The film’s title “Black Rain” came from the heavy radioactive ash laden black rain that fell with a few hours of the blast permanently, indelibly poisoning everything it touched

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Is anyone not aware of this peak Stanley Kubrick absurdist masterpiece telling the story of yet another fail safe system gone wrong? Peter Sellers is brilliant in yet another multi-character tour de force and George C. Scott has never been better as the gum chewing, dangerously gung-ho General “Buck” Turgidson. But the real star of this film is the dialogue.  From the classic, “Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here. This is the war room.” To this longer gem that tells you all you need to know about nuclear war.

“General Turgidson: Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth, both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our nation. Now, truth is not always a pleasant thing. But it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless distinguishable, post-war environments: one where you got 20 million people killed, and the other where you got 150 million people killed!

President Muffley: You’re talking about mass murder, General, not war.

General Turgidson: Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed.” but I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops! Uh, depending on the breaks.”

 You May Also Like

Samuel Porteous

Samuel Porteous is a Shanghai/Hong Kong-based artist/author and founder of Drowsy Emperor Studio represented by Creative Artists Agency (CAA). His work includes visual arts, illustration, graphic novels, screenwriting and film. Sam has published in the WSJ, Financial Times, SCMP, Fortune China, the Globe and Mail, National Post and Hong Kong Standard among others. He is also the author of "Ching Ling Foo: America's First Chinese Superstar" a biography of the late polymath magician come diplomat and author/illustrator of the graphic novel series Constable Khang's Mysteries of Old Shanghai.

7 thoughts on “The Best Movies About Nuclear War

  • June 13, 2022 at 2:02 pm
    Permalink

    Re. The Day After, there are so many different storytelling angles they could have pursued. Maybe you have a theory as to why the film focuses on a few people in rural Kansas and in Kansas City, rather than any number of other settings.

    Reply
    • June 13, 2022 at 2:23 pm
      Permalink

      I think they were trying to reach the flyover states with the movie’s message. And I think they were effective in that goal.

      Reply
  • June 13, 2022 at 2:36 pm
    Permalink

    Agreed. It was very effective in communicating the message that this would not be the kind of war where things only happened outside the US. The term “flyover states” becomes a misnomer once we move to nuclear war. Housing missile silos was part of their problem.

    Reply
  • June 13, 2022 at 9:58 pm
    Permalink

    The Day After was on ABC when I was working at Ogilvy&Mather. No advertiser wanted to be in the show with its content. Our Account Executive told us that it would get a big rating for Kimberly Clark. She knew that wasn’t the point. The network had to run it without any commercial spots.

    Reply
  • June 14, 2022 at 10:42 pm
    Permalink

    You failed to mention Threads and The War Game, two paramount examples.

    Reply
  • June 15, 2022 at 11:04 am
    Permalink

    Both important nuclear war films. Kubrick actually sued the makers of Fail Safe for plagiarism and was able to keep it out of the theaters till Kubrick’s “funnier” opus departed. Threads made in the UK was actually grimmer than The Day After but reached a smaller audience. Both were included in our honorable mentions list that was clipped due to space issues. Here’s the full list of just missed honorees;
    More Looming and Realized Nuclear Annihilation Entertainment:
    Threads (1984)
    Sum of All Fears (2002)
    Fail Safe (1964 and 2000 remake)
    War Games (1983 )
    White Light/Black Rain (2007 Japanese Documentary )
    Thirteen Days (Cuban Missile Crisis -2000)
    Chosen Survivors (1974 )
    The War Game (1965 Documentary)

    Reply
  • June 16, 2022 at 2:06 am
    Permalink

    None of these films were made in the 21st century. In the 80s when many of these films were made, a million people marched on Washington to call for an end to nuclear weapons. People were aware. 45,000 nuclear weapons were subsequently dismantled and relations with Russia and China were normalized. The world got a lot safer. But today we have a generation of people who are unaware and unconcerned about the danger of nuclear war. As a result we are now playing chicken with a nuclear power in Ukraine; we are inviting nuclear disaster, and both liberals and conservatives are in on it. The films on this list should be required viewing for everyone, and new films need to be made on this topic. If we care about our children and our future we need to make people aware of the dangers of nuclear war. Film is an important way to do that. Thanks for writing this. More please.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.