The Best Cold War Movies Ever....by Alex Diaz-Granados
Sep 2, 2006 (Updated Sep 5, 2006)
The Bottom Line For almost 50 years, the Cold War was the defining conflict that shaped our world, and Hollywood made some great films that dealt with various aspects of it.
The Cold War, that bizarre state of war-in-peace between the U.S.-led West and the Soviet-led East which began in 1945 and ended in 1991, was, until the post-9/11 War on Terror, the most dominant geopolitical conflict in my lifetime. For the first 28 years of my life, I knew that somewhere in the Soviet Union, an intercontinental missile lay in a concrete-and-steel silo with a nuclear warhead targeted on my home town of Miami, and that a single miscalculation by either an American President or a Soviet General Secretary could lead to the annihilation of the entire human race.
Having grown up with the nightmarish fear of mushroom-shaped clouds rising over blasted cities and with an almost atavistic dislike of Soviet-style Communism, I developed a strange fascination for movies and books that dealt with the Cold War, particularly those that extrapolated from reality and explored the ultimate nightmare scenario of either a conventional or nuclear conflict between the Soviet Union/Warsaw Pact and the United States/North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Maybe it was morbid curiosity, or maybe it was just a way of confronting my innermost fears about a third world war, but if a good movie along the lines of Fail-Safe or Dr. Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb happened to be on television, I'd watch it.
15 years after the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev and the demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the world seems to be more of a dangerous place than it ever was at the height of the Cold War. In some ways, the bipolar world of my childhood and early adult years seems to have been somewhat more predictable, more...contained, namely because the Soviets, for all their talk about world revolution and their support for wars of national liberation, were far more rational than the zealots and firebrands who, hiding behind their holy books and talk of piety and "submission to God's will," call for the destruction of "infidel America" and its "Zionist puppet" Israel. The Soviets, you may recall, had suffered the loss of 25 million citizens during World War II; for all their talk of burying the West and ushering in a new age of World Socialism, they weren't stupid enough to risk being blown back to the Stone Age, nor, despite McCarthy-style propaganda, did they really want to kill millions of their fellow human beings unless it was forced upon them.
From the moment the Cold War started (some say it was in 1945, others say it was in 1946), Hollywood made many films about the East-West war-in-times-of-peace. Most, of course, dealt with espionage and political intrigue (Ice Station Zebra, The Package, The Hunt for Red October), a few dealt with true-life incidents (The Big Lift, The Missiles of October, Thirteen Days), while a handful went to the logical - or is it "illogical"? - extreme and showed the Cold War turning hot, either by accident or on purpose.
Here, then, is my list of the 10 Best Movies About the Cold War, in no particular order or ranking.
The Bedford Incident (1965): An American destroyer skipper (Richard Widmark) remorselessly tracks a Soviet submarine in the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland in a gripping film that combines elements of The Enemy Below, Fail-Safe, and (thematically), Moby Dick. Set entirely aboard the USS Bedford, the viewer is trapped, along with co-stars Sidney Poitier (as a magazine reporter) and Martin Balsam (as a reservist doctor called back to active duty) as an almost obsessive captain attempts to pin down an elusive Foxtrot-class diesel submarine in NATO-territorial waters. Its "I'll fire one if he fires one" denouement is one of the most chilling endings of the genre.
World War III (1982): When President Thomas McKenna (Rock Hudson) imposes a grain embargo on the Soviet Union for not withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Kremlin retaliates by sending a company of paratroopers to seize a pumping station in the Alaska Pipeline. The world is on the brink of war as McKenna tries to reason with Soviet leader Gorny (Brian Keith), and everything hinges on the ability of Col. Caffey (David Soul) to stop the Soviets with a small detachment of ill-equipped National Guardsmen.
Fail-Safe (1964): While on routine patrol over the Arctic Circle, a flight of Vindicator bombers receives a chilling coded message: CAP 811. Translation: Attack Moscow. This is just one link in a chain of accidents and miscues that forces a harried President of the United States (Henry Fonda) to contact his Soviet counterpart and try every means possible to avert an all-out nuclear war.
The Hunt for Red October (1990): John McTiernan followed up his success with 1988's Die Hard by directing this taut adaptation of Tom Clancy's first Jack Ryan novel about a Soviet sub commander and a select group of officers who commandeer -- subtly -- the Red Navy's newest ballistic missile sub and attempts a westward underwater run to the East Coast of the United States. When the Soviet Navy gives chase, it's up to CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) to figure out what Captain First Rank Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) intends to do before a crisis starts and inadvertently sparks World War III
Red Dawn (1984): Although somewhat improbable at times, John Milius' action-adventure depiction of a Soviet-led invasion of Colorado is one of the rare Hollywood forays into a full-blown conventional war between the U.S. and Russia. Although it is narrowly focused on a group of adolescent resistance fighters trying to wreak as much havoc as they can against the invaders, the film is a good "what-if" look at the Cold War-goes-Hot scenario without the usual apocalyptic ending.
Thirteen Days (2000): Although it was in and out of theaters in less than two weeks, Roger Donaldson's film about the Cuban Missile Crisis is one of the best "based on a true Cold War event" film. David Self's screenplay sticks very closely to the facts about those terrifying 13 days in October 1962, relying mostly on transcripts of actual recordings of JFK and the "Ex-Comm" of top advisors made by the President and on various written accounts. Some events are dramatized, of course, but the essence of the atmosphere in the White House and the Pentagon is captured quite nicely.
Dr. Strangelove (1964): Director Stanley Kubrick began this project with the intention of making a serious adaptation of Peter George's novel Red Alert, but the more he researched the topic of nuclear war, the sillier the concepts of Mutual Assured Destruction, deterrence, and limited nuclear war seemed, so he teamed up with humorist/screenwriter Terry Southern and came up with this "black comedy" about Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) and his insane plan to destroy the Soviet Union in order to, among other things, maintain the "purity of our natural bodily fluids." Peter Sellers plays three characters in this bitingly funny yet often suspenseful film that ends with mushroom clouds blooming to the strains of Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again."
The Missiles of October (1974): Starring William Devane as President John F. Kennedy, Howard Da Silva as General Secretary Nikita S. Khruschev, and Martin Sheen as Robert F. Kennedy, this is a more limited, almost play-like depiction of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It has no action scenes whatsoever, but the dialogue, particularly between JFK and Khruschev, is evocative of one of the Cold War's most perilous moments.
The Package (1989): Before making a bigger impact with Under Siege and The Fugitive, Andrew Davis directed this end-of-the-Cold War thriller about Johnny Gallagher, an Army sergeant (Gene Hackman) assigned to escort a troublesome GI (Tommy Lee Jones) from Germany back to the States. When his prisoner escapes, Gallagher is caught up in the middle of a "Manchurian Candidate" type conspiracy that, if it works, will set back U.S.-Soviet relations to pre-glasnost depths of mutual distrust and hostility.
Seven Days in May (1964): Released the same year that ushered in Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove, this John Frankenheimer film explored another nightmare scenario of the Cold War. This time, instead of dealing with nuclear war or actual combat with Russia, the film delved into the possibility of a military takeover of the U.S. government when an American President (Fredric March) intends to sign a disarmament treaty, much to the discontent of Pentagon generals who fear a Soviet surprise attack. Also starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, the film is a fine example of Cold War psychological drama at its best.