Category Archives: Nuclear Paranoia

Happy End of the World: Top 10 Nuke Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 7, 2017)

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Every January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists gives the human race its annual physical, to determine the official time on the Doomsday Clock (with midnight representing Armageddon). Last January, they moved the hands to 3 minutes to midnight.

Those geeks in the white lab coats didn’t mince any words, either:

Today, unchecked climate change and a nuclear arms race resulting from modernization of huge arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity. And world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe. These failures of leadership endanger every person on Earth.

So how do things look for 2017? The latest word from their website is not encouraging:

“It is still Three Minutes to Midnight […] that probability has not been reduced. The Clock ticks. Global danger looms. Wise leaders should act—immediately.”

In a 2011 Hullabaloo post about the ever-sobering Hiroshima anniversary, I wrote:

So what have we learned since 8:15am, August 6, 1945-if anything? […] there are enough stockpiled weapons of mass destruction to knock Planet Earth 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. Hopefully, cool heads and diplomacy will continue to keep us all rad-free.

In just under two weeks, Donald J. Trump will be sworn in as the President of the United States. As they said: The clock ticks. Global danger looms…and the Master of 3am Tweets will have the nuclear codes. That in mind, here are my picks for the top 10 cautionary films to watch before…we all go together (when we go). In alphabetical order:

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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 perversely 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 take down of the tobacco industry).

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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. Others deal directly with survivors (known in Japan as hibakusha films). One of the top hibakusha films is this overlooked 1989 drama from Shomei Imamura, a relatively simple tale of three Hiroshima survivors: an elderly couple and their niece, whose scars run much deeper than 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.

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The Day after Trinity– This absorbing film about the Manhattan Project and its subsequent fallout (historical, political and existential) is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. At its center, it is a profile of project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose moment of professional triumph (the successful test of the world’s first atomic bomb, three weeks before Hiroshima) also brought him an unnerving precognition about the horror that 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 tragic tale of Shakespearean proportion. Two recommended companion pieces: Roland Joffe’s 1989 drama Fat Man and Little Boy, about the working relationship between Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) and military director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves (Paul Newman); and an outstanding 1980 BBC miniseries called Oppenheimer (starring Sam Waterston).

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Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb- “Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet 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 those 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 it all up. It’s the one 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. And what a cast: Peter Sellers (as three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull. There are so many great quotes, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks.

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Fail-SafeDr. 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.

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Miracle Mile- Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a fairly reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way. The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted, 90-minute sleeper offers more heart-pounding excitement (and much more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this 1988 gem (his only other feature was Cherry 2000).

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One Night Stand – An early effort from eclectic filmmaker John Duigan (Winter of Our Dreams, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens, etc.). This 1984 sleeper is a worthwhile entry amidst the flurry of nuclear paranoia-themed movies that proliferated throughout the Reagan era. Through circumstance, four young people (three Australians and an American sailor who has jumped ship) get holed up in an otherwise empty Sydney Opera House on the eve of escalating nuclear tension between the superpowers in Eastern Europe. In a concerted effort to deflect their collective anxiety over increasingly ominous news bulletins droning on from the radio, they find creative ways to keep their spirits up.

The film is uneven at times, but for the most part Duigan capably juggles the busy mashup of romantic comedy, apocalyptic thriller and anti-war statement. There are several striking set pieces; particularly an eerily affecting scene where the quartet watch Fritz Langs’s Metropolis as the Easybeats hit “Friday on My Mind” is juxtaposed over its orchestral score. Midnight Oil performs in a scene where the two women attend a concert. The bittersweet denouement (in an underground tube station) is quite powerful.

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Testament- Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film was released to theatres and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key, deliberate approach, but pulls no punches. Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a 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; this is a wise decision, as it puts the focus on the 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 very 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.”

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Thirteen Days– I confess that I had a block against seeing this 2000 release about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis for years, for several reasons. For one, director Roger Donaldson’s uneven output (for every Smash Palace or No Way Out, he’s got a Species or a Cocktail). I also couldn’t get past “Kevin Costner? In another movie about JFK?” Also, I felt the outstanding 1974 made-for-TV film, The Missiles of October would be hard to top. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be one of Donaldson’s better films.

Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp make a very credible JFK and RFK, respectively. The film works as a political thriller, yet it is also intimate and moving at times (especially in the Oval Office scenes between the brothers). Costner provides the “fly on the wall” perspective as Kennedy insider Kenny O’Donnell. Costner gives a compassionate performance; on the downside he demonstrates a tin ear for dialects (that Hahvad Yahd brogue comes and goes of its own free will). According to a tidbit posted on the Internet Movie Database, this was the first film screened at the White House by George and Laura Bush in 2001. Knowing this now…I don’t know whether to laugh or cry myself to sleep.

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The War Game / Threads– Out of all of the selections on this list, these two British TV productions are the grimmest and most sobering “nuclear nightmare” films of them all.

Writer-director Peter Watkins’ 1965 docudrama, The War Game was initially produced for television, but was deemed too shocking and disconcerting for the small screen by the BBC. It was mothballed until picked up for theatrical distribution, which snagged it an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1967. Watkins envisions the aftermath of a nuke attack on London, and pulls no punches. Very ahead of its time, and it still packs quite a wallop.

The similar Threads debuted on the BBC in 1984, later airing in the U.S. on TBS. Mick Jackson directs with an uncompromising realism that makes The Day After (the U.S. TV film from the previous year that tackled the same scenario) look like a Teletubbies episode. The story takes a medium sized city (Sheffield) and depicts what would happen to its populace during and after a nuclear strike, in graphic detail. It’s stark and affecting.

Both of these productions make it very clear that, while they are dramatizations, the intent is not to “entertain” you in any sense of the word. 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.

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UPDATE 1/26/17 – Oh boy. This seems like an important addendum:

 

“It is [now] two and a half minutes to midnight
The board’s decision to move the clock less than a full minute—something it has never before done—reflects a simple reality: As this statement is issued, Donald Trump has been the US president
only a matter of days.”
That’s today’s update from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
Read on, if you dare…
h/t Digby

Plus ca change: Criterion reissues Dr. Strangelove ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 16, 2016)

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Now then, Dmitri, you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb…The *Bomb*, Dmitri… The *hydrogen* bomb!…Well now, what happened is… ahm…one of our base commanders, he had a sort of…well, he went a little funny in the head… you know…just a little…funny. And, ah…he went and did a silly thing…Well, I’ll tell you what he did. He ordered his planes…to attack your country…

 –from Dr. Strangelove (1964)

That’s POTUS Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), making “the call” to the Russian premier from the War Room, regarding an unfortunate chain of events that may very well signal the end of civilization as we know it. It’s a nightmare scenario, precipitated by a perfect storm of political paranoia, bureaucratic bungling and ideological demagoguery that enables the actions of a lone nutcase to trigger global thermonuclear war. Sound familiar?

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 1964 masterpiece about the tendency for people in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why Kubrick and company bothered to make it all up. In case you skipped the quote at the top of this piece, it’s the movie 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 rarely see a cast like this: Peter Sellers (playing three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull (who can be seen breaking character as the Russian ambassador and cracking up as Strangelove’s prosthetic arm seems to take on a mind of its own). There are so many great lines, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks.

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Vodka. That’s what they drink, isn’t it? Never water? On no account will a Commie ever drink water, and not without good reason. Water is the source of all life. Seven-tenths of this earth’s surface is water. Why, do you realize that 70 percent of you is water? And as human beings, you need fresh, pure water to replenish our precious bodily fluids. Are you beginning to understand? –Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), from Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (its full title) did not necessarily spring from a, you know, “funny” place. Indeed, Red Alert, ex-RAF officer Peter George’s 1958 source novel, was anything but; and did not even include the character of Dr. Strangelove, the ex-Nazi scientist who emerges from the shadows of the war room just in time to contextualize all that inspired madness of the film’s third act. “He” was the invention of Kubrick and screenwriter Terry Southern. In a 1994 Grand Street article called “Notes from the War Room”, Southern recounts Kubrick’s epiphany:

[Kubrick] told me he was going to make a film about “our failure to understand the dangers on nuclear war.” He said that he had thought of the story as a “straightforward melodrama” until this morning when he “woke up and realized that nuclear war was too outrageous, too fantastic to be treated in any conventional manner.” He said he could only see it now as “some kind of hideous joke.”

Kubrick had approached Southern as a collaborator on the basis of having read his social satire The Magic Christian (which was itself adapted for the screen in 1969). You have to keep in mind that while Kubrick’s film was in production, the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was still fresh in the minds of a nervous public. This was the height of the Cold War; few people found nuclear annihilation to be, you, know, “funny”…least of all studio suits. When Sellers backed out of the role of Major Kong (to Kubrick’s chagrin), it was first offered to Bonanza star Dan Blocker. Southern recalls (from the same article):

[Kubrick] made arrangements for a script to be delivered to Blocker that afternoon, but a cabled response from Blocker’s agent arrived in quick order: “Thanks a lot, but the material is too pinko for Dan. Or anyone else we know, for that matter. Regards, Leibman, CMA.”

 As I recall, this was the first hint that this sort of political interpretation of our work in progress might exist. Stanley seemed genuinely surprised and disappointed.

But it worked out in the end. Could you imagine anyone but Slim Pickens as Maj. Kong?

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Survival kit contents check. In them you’ll find: one forty-five caliber automatic; two boxes of ammunition; four days’ concentrated emergency rations; one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills; one miniature combination Russian phrase book and Bible; one hundred dollars in rubles; one hundred dollars in gold; nine packs of chewing gum; one issue of prophylactics; three lipsticks; three pair of nylon stockings. Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff. –Major Kong prepping his B-52 crew

It was in the interest of possible “political interpretation” that a critical revision had to be made to that memorable monolog in post-production. In an eerie bit of kismet, Kubrick had scheduled the first test screening of Dr. Strangelove for November 22, 1963…the day of JFK’s assassination; in view of that zeitgeist-shattering event, the film’s originally slated December premiere was postponed until late January of 1964. But that wasn’t the spookiest part. Originally, the last line of the bit was: “Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff.” Pickens had to be recruited to re-loop the line as we now know it. If you listen carefully during the scene, you can pick up on the edit.

However it did manage to fall together is really moot; the final product stands the test of time as a satire that will never lose relevancy (one could say that about any Kubrick film, as each ultimately points to the absurdity of all these self-important hominids, scurrying about blissfully oblivious to their insignificance within a vast, randomly cruel cosmos).

Hell, Mr. President…I could do a 2,000 word dissertation on the Freudian subtext alone; from the opening montage of aircraft engaging in (decidedly coital) airborne re-fueling maneuvers, to General Ripper firing the .50 caliber machine gun from his crotch, not to mention his cigar and his monolog about why he denies women his “essence”, to the character’s names (Dr. Strangelove, President Muffley, Buck Turgidson, Mr. Staines), and of course all of that phallic weaponry, and montage of nuclear explosions at the end.

But I won’t.

https://cynicritics.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/strangelovebuck3.jpg?resize=474%2C322Oh…and uh, shug? Don’t forget to say your prayers!

Fans of the film will be glad to hear that Dr. Strangelove has been given the Criterion treatment, with the release of their Blu-ray edition. The restored 4k transfer is gorgeous; the best print I’ve seen of the film on home video (this is the third digital version I’ve owned…it’s a sickness, I know). They’ve really piled on the extras; there’s a plethora of archival interviews, as well as featurettes produced exclusively for this edition, like audio essays by film scholars and interviews with Kubrick collaborators and archivists. So fans can immerse themselves in the Strangelovian universe…if that doesn’t seem redundant.

Oh, when November rolls around…don’t forget to say your prayers.

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Previous posts with related themes:

Criterion peddles Kubrick’s noir cycle

Synchronicity: Criterion reissues The Manchurian Candidate

Blu-ray reissue: Miracle Mile ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2015)

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Miracle Mile – Kino Lorber Blu-ray

“Someone” (in this case, Kino Lorber) finally has seen fit to release a properly formatted HD edition of this 1988 sleeper (previously available only as MGM’s dismal “pan and scan” DVD). Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way. The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted 90-minute thriller offers more heart-pounding excitement (and more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this one (his only other credit is the guilty pleasure sci-fi adventure Cherry 2000, which also made its Blu-ray debut this year courtesy of Kino Lorber). Extras include a commentary track by film critic Walter Chaw, along with the director.

Blu-ray reissue: The Day the Earth Caught Fire ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 6, 2014)

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The Day the Earth Caught Fire – BFI Blu-ray (Region “B” )

Written and directed by Val Guest, this cerebral mix of conspiracy a-go-go and sci-fi (from 1961) has always been a personal favorite of mine. Simultaneous nuclear testing by the U.S. and Soviets triggers an alarmingly rapid shift in the Earth’s climate. As London’s weather turns more tropical by the hour, a Daily Express reporter (Peter Stenning) begins to suspect that the British government is not being 100% forthcoming on the possible fate of the world. Along the way, Stenning has some steamy scenes with his love interest (sexy Janet Munro). The film is more noteworthy for its smart, snappy patter than its run-of-the-mill f/x, but still delivers a compelling narrative. Co-starring the great Leo McKern (who steals every scene he’s in). The releasing studio is BFI, a UK-based reissue outfit that employs the same grade of high standards that Criterion has become known for here in the U.S., with meticulously restored prints and extras geared toward the film buff. Please note that this review is based on the region “B” release, so it requires a region-free Blu-ray player.

Nuclear energy is safe! – Pandora’s Promise **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 15, 2013)

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“Dogs flew spaceships! The Aztecs invented the vacation! Men and women are the same sex! Our forefathers took drugs! Your brain is not the boss! Yes! That’s right! Everything you know is wrong!”

 –From the Firesign Theatre’s album Everything You Know is Wrong.

Wow. My world’s been turned upside down. My mind is blown. For most of my adult life, I’ve apparently been walking around in a spoon-fed daze: Everything I thought I knew about nuclear energy is wrong! I’m shocked. Shocked no one previously took the time to grab me by the lapel to sit me down and set me straight about this whole “nuclear energy is inherently unsafe” meme that my environmentalist bruthuhs and sistahs have been shoving down my throat ever since I was knee-high to a recycled glass hopper. That is, until I saw Robert Stone’s new documentary, Pandora’s Promise. Now, I’m free! Free to ride…without getting hassled by the Man!

Stone, a self-described “passionate environmentalist for as long as [he] could remember” goes on to write in his Director’s Statement that he sensed “…a deep pessimism that has infused today’s environmental movement, and to recognize the depth of its failure to address climate change.” Ouch. Then, “…through getting to know (Whole Earth Catalog founder) Stewart Brand“, he was “introduced to a new and more optimistic view of our environmental challenges that was pro-development and pro-technology” (I should note at this juncture that Paul Allen and Richard Branson are a couple of the, shall we call them, “pro-development and pro-technology tycoons” with possible vested interest listed among the producers). Stone has enlisted members of the “small but growing cadre of people” willing to challenge “the rigid orthodoxy of modern environmentalism” as talking heads for his decidedly pro-nuclear energy film.

I’ll admit that I hadn’t read the synopsis very carefully, and was anticipating yet one more film along the lines of last year’s cautionary eco-doc The Atomic States of America, preaching to the choir and telling me what I already knew (or thought I knew?) about the health effects on populations living in proximity of nuclear plant mishaps like Chernobyl and Fukushima. Initially, as it began to dawn on me that Stone’s film was taking an unabashed debunker’s stance toward what has become the accepted “green think” on such matters, I must say I found it quite compelling, if for no other reason than the fact that it was breaking the typical eco-doc mold.

Besides, his interviewees take pains to identify themselves as environmentally-conscious, politically progressive folks who at one time were stridently anti-nuke (yet have come to see the light). But haven’t  thousands of Russians died of health issues related to Chernobyl? Pshaw! According to the film, the “official” number is…56? They cite a World Health Organization report that appears to support that number. France is held up as a prime example of one country that has happily embraced nuclear energy. And so on.

Still, by the time it ended, I couldn’t help but feel that what I’d just been handed was a one-sided debate, and the more I thought about it, the more it played like a 90-minute infomercial for the nuclear energy lobby. I began to wonder about the purported “green cred” of the interviewees. And what exactly is this “Breakthrough Institute”, the nebulous benefactor thanked in the end credits (sounds like one of those secret labs that get blown up at the end of a Bond movie)? Don’t get me wrong…I’m all for weighing both sides of an issue, but apparently, I’m not the only movie-going rube with such an inquiring mind regarding a possible hidden agenda; it took all of 10 seconds on Mr. Google to find a 9-page investigative probe about the film’s cast and backers, posted by the activist group Beyond Nuclear. That said, I’ll grant Stone his chutzpah, and he gives food for thought. Should you see it? Hmm. Approach it as you would a reactor room…Enter with Caution.

SIFF 2012: The Atomic States of America ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 26, 2012)

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Remember the “No Nukes” movement that gained momentum in the mid to late 70s and then fizzed after Chernobyl proved that those DFHs may have been on to something after all? Good times. Lots of (irradiated) water passed under the bridge. Everyone got distracted by their iPhones. Fast-forward to the announcement in 2010 that the U.S. was going forward with construction of the first nuclear power plant in three decades; corporate America swooned over the “Nuclear Renaissance” (short memories). Then, as if on cue, Fukushima happened in 2011. The Atomic States of America is a timely eco-doc that could serve as a perfect wake-up call for anyone who may have failed to connect those dots (i.e., the jury is still out on the “safety” of this energy source).

Co-directors Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce build their case with a certain  sense of urgency, reviewing the industry’s past sins and spotlighting present day travails suffered by communities adjacent to nuclear plants (like “cancer clusters”). Most importantly, the filmmakers boldly tackle the $64,000 question: How in the fuck did we get to this Bizzarro World scenario wherein the Atomic Energy Commission finds itself kowtowing to the nuclear power industry…instead of vice versa? Essential viewing.

VHS only: One Night Stand ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 14, 2012)

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An early effort from eclectic filmmaker John Duigan (Winter of Our Dreams, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens, etc.). This 1984 sleeper is a worthwhile entry amidst the flurry of nuclear paranoia-themed movies that proliferated throughout the Reagan era. Through circumstance, four young people (three Australians and an American sailor who has jumped ship) get holed up in an otherwise empty Sydney Opera House on the eve of escalating nuclear tension between the superpowers in Eastern Europe. In a concerted effort to deflect their collective anxiety over increasingly ominous news bulletins droning on from the radio, they find creative ways to keep their spirits up.

The film is uneven at times, but for the most part Duigan capably juggles the busy mashup of romantic comedy, apocalyptic thriller and anti-war statement. There are several striking set pieces; particularly an eerily affecting scene where the quartet watch Fritz Langs’s Metropolis as the Easybeats hit “Friday on My Mind” is juxtaposed over its orchestral score. Midnight Oil performs in a scene where the two women attend a concert. The bittersweet denouement (in an underground tube station) is quite powerful.

 

Destroyer of worlds: Top 15 Nuke films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 6, 2011)

“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, we’ve tried to harness the power of the atom for “good”, however, as has been demonstrated repeatedly, that’s not working out so well (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, et al) Also, there are enough stockpiled weapons of mass destruction to knock Planet Earth 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. Hopefully, cool heads and diplomacy will continue to keep us all rad-free.

With that in mind, I am sharing my picks for the top 15 nuke films you should watch before…we all go together (when we go). Why 15, instead of the usual 10? Long-time readers may be aware that I have published several nuke-themed posts in the past; however this is my “ultimate” list, revised and culled from all previous. So in a way, it’s “new”. Clear? As per usual, they are  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 perversely 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. Others deal directly with survivors (known in Japan as hibakusha films). One of the top hibakusha films is this overlooked 1989 drama from Shomei Imamura, a relatively simple tale of three Hiroshima survivors: an elderly couple and their niece, whose scars run much deeper than 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 China Syndrome– Directed by James Bridges (who co-scripted with Mike Gray and T.S. Cook), this nail-biting thriller centers on an ambitious reporter (Jane Fonda) who ends up in the “wrong place at the right time” while conducting a routine interview at a nuclear power plant. Her cameraman (Michael Douglas, who produced) captures (at first accidentally, then surreptitiously) potentially damning footage of what appears to be a serious radioactive containment issue and subsequent scramble by officials to cover it up. To their dismay, Fonda and Douglas discover that getting the truth out to the public might require them to make loathsome moral compromises, not only with plant officials, but with the brass back at the television station. Jack Lemmon gives a heartbreaking performance as a conflicted man desperately wrestling with his conscience. The film is a dire warning about the inherent dangers of nuclear energy, and of a too-compliant media.

The Day after Trinity– This absorbing film about the Manhattan Project and its subsequent fallout (historical, political and existential) is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. At its center, it is a profile of project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose moment of professional triumph (the successful test of the world’s first atomic bomb, three weeks before Hiroshima) also brought him an unnerving precognition about the horror that 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 tragic tale of Shakespearean proportion. Two recommended companion pieces: Roland Joffe’s 1989 drama Fat Man and Little Boy, about the working relationship between Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) and military director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves (Paul Newman); and an outstanding 1980 BBC miniseries called Oppenheimer (starring Sam Waterston).

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 gem from 1986. Voight is an embittered, paranoid, alcoholic WW2 vet, who runs a “last chance” gas station on the outskirts of Las Vegas in the early 1950s. He makes life nerve-wracking for his long-suffering wife (JoBeth Williams) and three daughters. On a “good” day, Dad is engaging, loving and erudite.  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 (Annabeth Gish, in an impressive debut). When a free-spirited aunt (Ellen Barkin) comes to visit, she sets off the emotional time bomb that has been ticking within this dysfunctional family for a while. Director Eugene Corr and screenwriter Linda Remy draw insightful parallels between the fear and uncertainty of nuclear threat (the story is set on the eve of a desert bomb test), and the fear and uncertainty 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 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 those 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 it all up. It’s the one 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. And what a cast: Peter Sellers (as three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull. There are so many great quotes, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks.

Fail-SafeDr. 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 crew members 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 theatrically exaggerated 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).

Miracle Mile- Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a fairly reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way. The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted, 90-minute sleeper offers more heart-pounding excitement (and much more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this 1988 gem (his only other feature was Cherry 2000).

No Nukes-This 1980 documentary was compiled with highlights from a five-night Madison Square Garden concert series and one-off Battery Park rally organized the previous year by Musicians United for Safe Energy (“MUSE”), a collective of activists and Woodstock generation music icons aiming to raise awareness of non-nuclear energy alternatives in the wake of the Three-Mile Island plant incident. It’s a real 1970s “soft rock” time capsule: Jackson Browne, The Doobie Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Carly Simon, and Crosby, Stills, & Nash are all here in their glory. They’re all in fine form, but the “California mellow” contingent is roundly blown off the screen by a rousing and cacophonous 20-minute finale courtesy of Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band-at the peak of their powers. It’s not the most dynamically produced concert film (don’t expect the cinematic artistry of, say, The Last Waltz), but the performances are heartfelt, and the message is a positive call to action that is more timely now than ever.

Silkwood– The tagline for this 1983 film was intriguing: “On November 13th, 1974, Karen Silkwood, an employee of a nuclear facility, left to meet with a reporter from The New York Times. She never got there.”  One might expect a riveting conspiracy thriller to ensue; however what director Mike Nichols and screenwriters Nora Ephron and Alice Arden do deliver is an absorbing character study of an ordinary working-class woman who performed an act of extraordinary courage which may (or may not) have led to her untimely demise.

Meryl Streep gives a typically immersive portrayal of Silkwood, who worked as a chemical tech at an Oklahoma facility that manufactured plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. On behalf of her union (and based on her own observations) Silkwood testified before the AEC in 1974 about ongoing health and safety concerns at her plant. Shortly afterwards, she tested positive for an unusually high level of plutonium contamination. Silkwood alleged malicious payback from her employers, while they countered that she had engineered the scenario herself. Later that year, on the last night of her life, she was in fact on her way to meeting with a Times reporter, armed with documentation to back her claims, when she was killed after her car ran off the road.

Nichols stays neutral on the conspiratorial speculations; but still delivers the goods here, thanks in no small part to his great cast, including Kurt Russell (as Silkwood’s husband), and Cher (garnering critical raves and a Golden Globe for her supporting performance).

Testament- Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film was released to theatres and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key, deliberate approach, but pulls no punches. Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a 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; this is a wise decision, as it puts the focus on the 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 very 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.”

Thirteen Days– I confess that I had a block against seeing this 2000 release about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis for years, for several reasons. For one, director Roger Donaldson’s uneven output (for every Smash Palace or No Way Out, he’s got a Species or a Cocktail). I also couldn’t get past “Kevin Costner? In another movie about JFK?” Also, I felt the outstanding 1974 made-for-TV film, The Missiles of October would be hard to top. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be one of Donaldson’s better films.

Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp make a very credible JFK and RFK, respectively. The film works as a political thriller, yet it is also intimate and moving at times (especially in the Oval Office scenes between the brothers). Costner provides the “fly on the wall” perspective as Kennedy insider Kenny O’Donnell. Costner gives a compassionate performance; on the downside he demonstrates a tin ear for dialects (that Hahvad Yahd brogue comes and goes of its own free will). According to a tidbit posted on the Internet Movie Database, this was the first film screened at the White House by George and Laura Bush in 2001. Knowing this now…I don’t know whether to laugh or cry myself to sleep.

Threads-Out of all of the selections on this 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 air 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.

Blu-ray reissue: Kiss Me Deadly ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 2, 2011)

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Kiss Me Deadly – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Robert Aldrich directed this influential 1955 pulp noir, adapted by A.I. Bezzerides from Mickey Spillane’s novel. Ralph Meeker is the epitome of cool as hard-boiled private detective Mike Hammer, who picks up a half-crazed (and half-naked) escapee from “the laughing house” (Cloris Leachman) one fateful evening after she flags him down on the highway. This sets off a chain of events that leads Hammer from run-ins with low-rent thugs to embroilment with a complex conspiracy involving a government scientist and a box of radioactive “whatsit” coveted by a number of interested parties.

The sometimes confounding plot takes a back seat to the film’s groundbreaking look and feel. The inventive camera angles, the expressive black and white cinematography (by Ernest Laszlo), the shocking violence, and the nihilism of the characters combine to make this quite unlike any other American film from the mid-50s.

The film is said to have had an influence on the French New Wave (you can  see that link when you pair it with Godard’s Breathless). British director Alex Cox paid homage in his 1984 cult film, Repo Man (both films include a  crazed scientist driving around with a box of glowing radioactive material in the trunk), and Tarantino featured a suspiciously similar box of mysterious “whatsit” in Pulp Fiction.

Criterion’s transfer is excellent (although on the down side, the high definition does bring out the inherent graininess of the film). Extras include commentary from two noir historians, excerpts from two docs (one about screenwriter Bezzerides and the other a profile of Spillane) and a special tribute from the aforementioned Alex Cox.