Media Depictions of Nuclear Crises

Since the advent of the Atomic Age in 1945 and the tensions of the Cold War, films, plays, TV shows, songs, and even video games have been created that focus on how a nuclear war could occur, and what may happen to society after it. As part of this, the Cuban Missile Crisis is often (rightfully) depicted as the closest humanity ever came to nuclear war. These media depictions serve as valuable records for how mankind viewed the dangers of the atomic age, and as reminders of what nuclear war is capable of.

Click here for examples of Cuban Missile Crisis depictions in the media.

Click here for examples of nuclear war depictions in the media.

Cuban Missile Crisis

  • Thirteen Days
  • The Missiles of October

Thirteen Days (2000), starring Kevin Costner and directed by Roger Donaldson, is a film that chronicles the decision-making of President Kennedy and his EXCOMM during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The film focuses on Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy, and White House aide Kenneth O’Donnell. The film used the transcripts of EXCOMM’s deliberations as the basis for its script. In 2000-1, the Belfer Center partnered with the makers of Thirteen Days to analyze the film’s historical accuracy and efficacy at presenting the White House deliberations of how to respond to the Soviet Union.

Click here to read the analyses that was originally published in 2001 to mark the release of Thirteen Days, a film about the events of October 1962.

Peter Almond (a co-producer of Thirteen Days), Graham Allison, and Ernest May (leading experts on the Cuban Missile Crisis) offer their opinions on the movie’s depiction of the Crisis.

 

The Missiles of October (1974), starring William Devane and Martin Sheen and directed by Anthony Page, is a teleplay chronicling the deliberations inside the White House and between Kennedy and Khrushchev during the Missile Crisis. The program’s used 1969’s Thirteen Days, written by Robert F. Kennedy, as the basis for the script.

Nuclear War

  • Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
  • Fail-Safe
  • When the Wind Blows
  • On the Beach
  • The Day After
  • Threads

Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), starring Peter Sellers and George C. Scott and directed by Stanley Kubrick, is a wickedly funny satire of nuclear war. The film describes how nuclear war may occur due to the actions of a rogue American general  (convinced that the fluoridation of America’s tap water is a Communist plot to create sexual impotence in men), and how the President and his staff try to prevent it. Peter Sellers plays multiple characters in the film, including the titular Dr. Strangelove, an ex-Nazi scientist who serves as an amalgamation of nuclear strategists like Herman Kahn and ex-Nazis like Werner von Braun. One of the film’s most famous scenes involves Slim Pickens riding a nuclear bomb.

Fail-Safe (1964), starring Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau and directed by Sidney Lumet, is a sober, serious film detailing how the United States and Soviet Union would negotiate during a nuclear crisis. After American planes are mistakenly launched to attack the USSR, the US and USSR both communicate and deliberate over how to stop the bombers from destroying Soviet Union. While critically acclaimed, the film was overshadowed by the success of Dr. Strangelove.

When the Wind Blows (1986), starring John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft and directed by Jimmy Murakami, is an animated film about an elderly couple’s response to nuclear war. The British film depicts how an elderly couple living in rural England deals with the aftermath of nuclear war between NATO and the Soviet Union. While the couple is not shown dying, it is heavily suggested that they will succumb to the effects of radiation sickness.

On the Beach (1959), starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner and directed by Stanley Kramer, is a film that describes the aftermath of nuclear war and how the final living human beings spend their last days on Earth. After nuclear war pollutes the world’s atmosphere, air flow slowly brings nuclear fallout to the southern hemisphere and the last human survivors of the war in Australia. The film focuses on an American submarine captain and his love interest as humanity tries to cope with the knowledge that all human life is ending.

The Day After (1983), starring JoBeth Williams, Jason Robards, Steve Guttenberg, John Lithgow, and others from an ensemble cast and directed by Nicholas Meyer, is a miniseries that depicts the aftermath of nuclear war on the mid-western United States. The film’s harrowing portrayal of post-nuclear America sparked a national debate about nuclear war and nuclear proliferation. While President, Ronald Reagan commented that in his diary that the film was “very effective and left me greatly depressed.”

Threads (1984), starring Karen Meagher and Reece Dinsdale and directed by Mick Jackson, is a British television film describing the prelude, fighting, and aftermath of nuclear war in northern England. The film uses a documentary style to focus on the aftermath of the war on two English families and how the war would decimate civilization, bringing it to near-medieval levels of poverty and strife.

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