Tag: Nuclear tension

Fail Safe (1964)

Henry Fonda desperately tries to avert nuclear war in Fail Safe

Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: Henry Fonda (The President), Dan O’Herlihy (Brigadier General Warren Black), Walter Matthau (Professor Groeteschele), Frank Overton (General Bogan), Fritz Weaver (Colonel Cascio), Edward Binns (Colonel Jack Grady), Larry Hagman (Buck), William Hansen (Defence Secretary Swenson)

In 1964 the classic film on nuclear conflict was released and became a landmark in Hollywood history. Also released was Fail Safe. Dr Strangelove has dragged Fail Safe through history like a sort of phantom limb. It’s reputation – if you’ve heard about it at all – is “Dr Strangelove but with no jokes”. That’s hugely harsh on a well-made, tense and fascinating film that sees nuclear war as less the blackly comedic theatre of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction, the buzzword of the day), and more as a dark human tragedy where mistakes, suspicions and paranoia lead to disaster.

During a routine manoeuvre, a mechanical power surge at USAAF leads to a mistaken but correctly authenticated order being sent to a wing of bombers to drop their nukes on Moscow. Due to Russian jamming, USAAF has no idea this has happened until after the five minute recall window. After the five-minute window has passed, the pilots follow their training and ignore all subsequent orders no matter who gives them – even if it’s directly from the President (Henry Fonda) himself. Desperately the President works with the Soviet Union to stop the bombers (and prevent the inevitable full scale nuclear war they would provoke). Problem is national pride, mutual suspicion, subordinates who can’t stomach co-operation between enemies and those that an accidental first strike is the perfect way to start a nuclear war one side could win, keep getting in the way.

While Dr Strangelove saw the insanity of MAD – the willingness of the leaders of both sides to promote a type of war that could only lead to the destruction of all life on earth – as so darkly absurd it could only be a subject for jet-dark-satire, Fail Safe takes a more humane if equally chilling route. Shot mostly with a low-key documentary realism by Sidney Lumet, the action is restricted to no more than four main locations. Once the crisis starts we never go outside. We never even see the Russians, represented only by photos and their words given life by Presidential translator Larry Hagman. Bar from the odd piece of stock footage, we are in the bunkers with the characters. And we feel as powerless as they do, as events spin out of control.

The film could be seen as an attack on the replacement of humans from the system by machines. Sure, the strike is triggered by a faulty piece of equipment. But everything after that is the result of good old-fashioned human error. The US debate about shooting down the bombers that goes on for so long, the bombers get out of range. The Russian refusal to accept US help to shoot the bombers down, leading them to taking pot shots at radar ghosts. The attempted coups on both sides in the command room, as junior officers refuse to co-operate with the enemy. The mistrust between both sides that leads the Russians chasing a decoy attack run rather the real bombing plane, despite the pleading of the American General that it’s a decoy.

And above all, the crushing arrogant insanity of introducing a system like this in the first place. A system so regimented and drilled into its soldiers – removing any chance of independent logical thought – that the pilot of the bombers will even ignore his own wife pleading down the line that the first strike he believes he is retaliating against hasn’t even happened. A system where leading American advisors suggest that, because it’s so difficult to call back an attack like this, why not just launch everything else after it as well and claim victory. This system can destroy the world but has no leeway for human error and forbids any independent thought from anyone. Now that’s MAD.

It takes a while for the film to get going, laying its groundwork slowly. Much of the first half hour introduces the characters – such as the family life of anti-Nuclear but loyal soldier General Black (a very good Dan O’Herlihy) and the chilling pragmatism of war theorist Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) to whom nuclear war is just a matter of working out what the acceptable casualty rates are (he would agree with Stalin that one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic). We tour the USAAF base where level-headed General Brogan (an excellent Frank Overton) and his twitchy number two Colonel Cascio (a slightly too fidgety Fritz Weaver) demonstrate just how fool-proof their systems are to a couple of congressmen – just as those systems fail.

From there the film plays out almost in real time, as the planes fly the two-hour journey to drop their bombs. Two hours when everyone tries to desperately tell themselves that this disaster can be prevented (or in some cases, can be turned into victory). Lumet’s film captures wonderfully the claustrophobic intensity of this. The Russians – despite never being seen – are skilfully humanised with snatches of conversation and photographs. The pilots are brave, resourceful, brilliantly trained – making their rigid determination to destroy the world for no reason (because their training doesn’t allow them to consider any other alternative) all the more tragic.

It all culminates in an impossibly bleak ending, the President’s only alternative to all-out nuclear war is one of terrifying magnitude. The inevitable build to this sacrifice is also executed with a low-key intensity. Fonda is perfect in the lead role – his tortured gravitas and decency pushing him towards ever more distasteful and finally appallingly bleak decisions.

Lumet’s film isn’t perfect – an overly impressionistic opening of General Black’s recurring dream of a matador smacks of someone who has watched way too many Bunuel films – and its slow start probably takes five minutes too long. But with its chillingly cold glaze on the flaws in the nuclear deterrent and the people who operate it, it deserves to be remembered as something more than Dr Strangelove Without the Jokes.

The China Syndrome (1979)

Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon struggle against Big Business interests in the Nuclear Industry in The China Syndrome

Director: James Bridges

Cast: Jane Fonda (Kimberly Wells), Jack Lemmon (Jack Godell), Michael Douglas (Richard Adams), Scott Brady (Herman DeYoung), Wilford Brimley (Ted Spindler), James Hampton (Bill Gibson), Peter Donat (Dan Jacovich), Richard Herd (Evan McCormack), Daniel Valdez (Hector Salas)

Do we really trust nuclear power? There is something about the dangerous possibilities of splitting the atom that alarms people even today. For all that burning coal wrecks our atmosphere, people would still rather that than live downwind of a station powered on substances that could obliterate everything within a five mile radius if something went wrong. The China Syndrome is about exactly that, an accident at nuclear power plant that could spell disaster for California.

Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) is a roving reporter for a Californian news channel, who (thanks to her sexist bosses) is constantly relegated to ludicrous puff pieces (“Today a hot air balloon landed in downtown LA!”). Sent to a nuclear power plant, she stumbles upon the real news story she has waited her whole career for when she and camera-man Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) secretly film a near catastrophic incident. Investigations try to brush the event under the carpet, but shift supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) knows corner-cutting and cost-saving is putting the whole of LA at risk – and, much against his inclination, he needs to speak out. 

The China Syndrome comes very much from that burst of 1970s conspiracy thriller films where shady big-business types are willing to throw almost anything under the bus in order to make a big bonus. It’s a film that takes a pop not only at the heartless bastards running a shoddy nuclear power plant (who couldn’t care less if the reactor is poorly welded together, so long as the money keeps rolling in) but also the hypocritical cowards running the media. The heads of the news channel kowtow swiftly to big business and are staggering in their sexism and race-to-the-bottom news coverage.

This film is as much about this brainless conformism as it is the dangers of nuclear power. The film is full of people who don’t want to rock the boat: half the people working at the plant would rather turn a blind eye to problems than pay the personal price of exposing them – even Jack Lemmon’s manager is the most reluctant whistleblower you’ll see in the movies. Fonda’s journalist may not be happy with her role as airhead eye-candy, but she will play the game in order to get ahead in the industry the role – and many of her media comrades seem almost totally lacking in any journalistic instincts. The film is bookended by inane TV coverage and advertising, a condemnation of an America that doesn’t ask questions and is sleepwalking towards catastrophe.

This catastrophe is, of course, extremely close – the power plant nearly goes into meltdown because a single dial gets stuck on a high reading, leading the control room to believe the nuclear rods are about to get flooded rather than nearly being exposed. Bridges mines a heck of a lot of tension from this crisis – told entirely from the perspective of the control room – as workers react with both stressed fear and a practised professionalism to a crisis that could become a disaster. Its part of a film where regular joes are generally professional and good at their jobs, but are let down and betrayed by the culture encouraged by the higher-ups.

Some of these themes, however, get a bit muddied in the film’s middle third, which gets bogged down way too much in nuclear theory, committee meetings, slow explanations of different types of weld, and dry lectures on the functioning of nuclear energy. While it is admirable that the film has no score, you can’t help but feel that a little music here to add some drama to Lemmon looking at x-rays or Fonda staring at diagrams could have helped pump up the tension. 

But it all gets paid off by the sudden (and surprising) shift to action and drama in the film’s final third, kickstarted by a surprisingly gripping car chase between Jack Lemmon’s quiet station manager and some shady goons hired by the company. Suddenly the film is powering through a tense series of set pieces that both feel like a different movie, while still a natural progression of the stakes.

Bridges directs the film very well. Each scene is calmly and coolly assembled, and he has a great eye and ear for technology and the noises and motions of machinery, which dominate the film – even if the film is rather in love with these background sounds, which risk taking over the soundtrack. It’s all part of stressing the cold mechanicalism and lack of humanity throughout both these industries. Sometimes the foot comes off the gas a little too much – you could probably trim at least 15 minutes – but when it comes to the moments of tension he directs with sharp snappiness.

The acting is also sublime. Jane Fonda is extremely good as Kimberly Wells. Initially she seems as light and superficial as the stories she is forced to cover, but Fonda paints a clever picture of a woman squeezed into playing a role, but yearning for (and capable of) so much more, who when she finds her moment shows levels of determination and cunning you would never have expected. For all her desire to become a ‘proper’ journalist though, Wells is savvy enough to make sure she is being filmed from her good side… Fonda makes her a careerist who uncovers a sense of moral purpose. She also manages to bring real emotion to the role, making Kimberly Wells a character we swiftly connect with.

The movie however is stolen away by Jack Lemmon, brilliantly low-key and everyday as the shift manager who becomes an overwhelmingly reluctant whistleblower. Lemmon’s performance is a perfect study in smallness, of a quiet dignity. He’s got no desire to rock the boat, quietly stating that the “plant is his whole life” – but when stirred, his professional pride transforms into determination to do the right thing, even while his lack of magnetism makes him unpersuasive and hard to take seriously. It’s a terrific performance of low-key tragedy, with Lemmon building the tension with small flashes of resentment, fear, determination and disillusionment flashing across his face. It’s a great reminder of what a marvellous dramatic actor Lemmon was.

Expertly produced by Michael Douglas (who does sterling work in the third-banana role as the camera man overflowing with conviction), The China Syndrome may at times be dry, but it makes up for that with its moments of high drama and moral conviction. By and large it avoids hectoring and lecturing the audience (when not teaching us about nuclear power), and lets its points be soft-sold rather than banged home. With some terrific performances, it’s a film that still feels relevant today, and is a great example of the 1970s conspiracy thriller genre.

WarGames (1983)

“Would you like to play a nice game of Chess” – if only he had said yes…

Director: John Badham

Cast: Matthew Broderick (David Lightman), Dabney Coleman (Dr John McKittrick), John Wood (Dr Stephen Falken), Ally Sheedy (Jennifer Mack), Barry Corbin (General Beringer)

If you worked in a nuclear launch centre and received orders to launch out of the blue, would you want to make a phone call to confirm? That’s the compelling idea that opens this tense but engagingly playful film on nuclear politics that successfully balances teen high-school drama with the possibility of Armageddon. For the record, the man who wants to make the call (played by Leo McGarry himself, John Spencer) outrages his subordinate so much with this breach in protocol that the subordinate pulls a gun on him and demands he follows the orders.

David (Matthew Broderick) is that staple of high-school drama, the geeky genius who coasts through school. He’s a computer genius and, attempting to impress cool girl Jennifer (Ally Sheedy), one-day he finds a back-door into NORAD’s weapons control system WOPR (aka JOSHUA). Thinking he’s found a computer games company, he accepts its invitation to play “Thermonuclear Global War”. Before he knows where he is, he’s in custody and bombs are fueling in their silos.

The opening of the film (a brilliantly self-contained mini-movie) perfectly encapsulates the swiftness of escalation in a nuclear war. At least three more times in the movie, we see how swiftly events can push on from DEFCON 5 to 1. This is a film that questions the very purpose of both the nuclear deterrent and nuclear war itself. There isn’t a single character who truly advocates the purpose of the weaponry, and none of them is anything but terrified at the prospect of pushing the button. But this questioning is handled lightly, and Badham’s direction never allows it to dominate proceedings. The film tackles such a big topic with such a sharp and fun script, and at such a rollicking, enjoyable pace with laughs and thrills, that it must count as a some sort of minor classic.

The film is also of course about computers and hacking. There is actually a lot of charm in watching, on my tablet, a film where a computer takes up the space of a room and an actual telephone is used to hack into an external network. This is probably one of the first films ever to demonstrate hacking and the potential influence of computers. Thrillingly, the film has both a warm acceptance of the advantages computers could bring, and a suitably sci-fi dread of what they may (unwittingly or not) unleash on the world if granted full power over us.

Because this film recognises, arguably ahead of its time, that the mechanisation and omnipresence of computers is terrifying. Like John Spencer in the film’s opening, most of us (I hope!) would want to speak to another human being before pressing the buttons. JOSHUA is scary because it is so benignly controlling – it believes that nuclear war is just another game, and has no understanding at all of the impact on the world its actions will have. JOSHUA isn’t a villain at all – it’s literally an ill-educated child that hasn’t learned its actions have consequences and can’t tell the difference between simulation and reality. It’s the nightmare scenario of having all the empathy and emotional intelligence removed from the world of decision-making.

This isn’t just a film about technology and nuclear politics though – far from it. It’s an engaging human story, told in a tight and streamlined way, and staffed by a very well written selection of characters who all feel tangible and real. Broderick and Sheedy are wonderfully engaging leads, with a great deal more depth than the cliché: David is far more assertive and determined than you might expect, while Jennifer has much more sense and humanity than a high-school Queen. This extends to our NORAD location: Dr McKittrick is far more empathetic and willing to listen than first impressions suggest, and General Beringer is a thoughtful, sensitive man at odds with his obstructive, gung-ho first impression. John Wood (a great stage actor who never quite got the film roles he deserved) plays Dr Falken with wit and a knowing wink, his disillusionment with the world sitting alongside a wry delight.

I was actually surprised how much I enjoyed this film and how well it stands up. It’s thought-provoking but it’s also a lot of fun and very well written, acted and directed. There is a very good mixture between “action” sequences – a wild drive and run to get into NORAD before it is locked down is particularly exciting – and conversation scenes that, due to their high stakes and impassioned acting, play like verbal action scenes. It’s superbly designed too, with the NORAD “war room” in particular setting the pattern for all such locations in future movies.

This is a perfect marriage between the blockbusting mindset of the 1980s and the cynicism of the 1970s. Because it’s a blockbuster and has kids in leading roles, it’s never got the credit it deserves – but this has as much merit as many political and conspiracy thrillers of the cynical 1970s.

The Sum of All Fears (2002)

Morgan Freeman and Ben Affleck save the world from nuclear armageddon

Director: Phil Alden Robinson
Cast: Ben Affleck (Jack Ryan), Morgan Freeman (William Cabot), Bridget Moynahan (Dr. Catherine Muller), James Cromwell (President J. Robert Fowler), Liev Schreiber (John Clark), Ciarán Hinds (President Alexander Nemerov), Alan Bates (Richard Dressler), Michael Byrne (Anatoly Grushkov), Colm Feore (Olson), Ron Rifkin (Sidney Owens), Bruce McGill (Gene Revell), Philip Baker Hall (David Becker) 

In the aftermath of 9/11, people debated whether that atrocity would lead to a change in how Hollywood made blockbusters. Would the public still have the taste for American landmarks being destroyed in the name of entertainment? I guess the answer was “sure they would”, because less than a year later Baltimore was being wiped out by a nuke in The Sum of All Fears. And people generally did find it entertaining. As they should: this is not a smart film, but it is fun, and with hardly any violence or swearing it’s a perfect “all generations” viewing thriller.

The fourth entry in the on-again, off-again Jack Ryan franchise, a series of loosely connected but enjoyable films based on Tom Clancy’s novels, this reboots the saga after two entertaining airport-novel style films starring Harrison Ford. Ryan (Ben Affleck) is now a young CIA analyst who is suddenly thrust centre stage in the Agency when Alexander Nemerov (Ciarán Hinds) rises to power in Russia. Before he knows it, he is working closely with CIA chief William Cabot (Morgan Freeman) and briefing the President (James Cromwell). Working with agent John Clark (Liev Schreiber), Ryan investigates rogue nuclear weapons in Russia, little knowing that it is part of a fiendish plan by European neo-Nazis, led by Richard Dressler (Alan Bates), to plunge Russia and the US into a nuclear confrontation.

First off the bat, Tom Clancy hated this film. He even does a commentary on the DVD which is a scene-by-scene breakdown of all the things he doesn’t like and the terrible changes he felt had been made from his book. I can see why he’s upset, but this is actually a very entertaining, solid, slightly old-fashioned piece of film-making. Clancy’s books aim to be “a few degrees to the left” of reality, to present something that could happen. This film is more of a Bond movie, not least in its choice of baddies. The book uses Arab terrorists. Wisely (I think) the film changes this to a set of Bond-villain like Nazis, embodied by Alan Bates’ enjoyable scenery-chewing performance as a slightly camp chain-smoking Nazi (“Ze Fuhrer vasn’t crazee. He vas stoopid”). There is even a scene where one of the plotters, Goldfinger-style, announces ’I will have no part in this madness’ only to be swiftly bumped off. Clancy hated it, but it’s something a little different and also enjoyably silly.

Besides, you might have felt there was enough vibe of reality in there for Clancy with the reaction to the big one being dropped on Baltimore. The build-up to this sequence is very well done, cut and shot with tension, and Jerry Goldsmith’s score really effectively helps with this build. It’s also quite shocking to actually see the plan succeed: and the shots of a mushroom cloud over the city are presented with a sombre sorrow. There is probably more Clancy criticism for Ryan’s effortless travel around the irradiated city (and his totally unaffected cell phone) but this sequence is still damn good.

Similarly skilfully done is the reaction of the politicians. Daringly, the US politicians are to a man sweaty, stressed old white guys (Air Force One takes off to the accompaniment of them screaming at each other). One of them even has a heart attack. The American politicians may be reluctant – but they are the fastest to rush towards pushing the button. They are also shown to be hopelessly lacking judgement when it comes to appraising the likely reactions to their decisions: one reassures the President that the Russians won’t respond to a full nuclear strike against military targets! The fast build from angry words to a bombers is terrifically done.

The Russians are similarly twitchy – and unlike the Americans, far more susceptible to bribery and collaboration with our villains – but interestingly their President is the “reasonable man”, whom Ryan (and the audience) respects. Charismatically embodied by that wonderful character actor Ciarán Hinds (the film deservedly brought Hinds to America’s attention and he hasn’t looked back since), Nemerov is the wisest, smartest guy in the room – a realist and level-headed man. Hinds is actually the stand-out in the film, superbly backed up by Michael Byrne as a shady (but surprisingly cuddly) KGB fixer.

The build-up to the remorselessly exciting nuke and aftermath sequences is pretty traditional fare but well directed by Phil Alden Robinson and a very good cast of actors largely deliver in their roles. Affleck at the time was heading into the height of his Bennifer unpopularity: he gives a decent performance as Ryan, but Ford is a tough act to follow and Affleck doesn’t quite have the same “ordinary-joe” quality Ford and Baldwin brought to it earlier. He also doesn’t quite have the leading man charisma the part needs to carry the film (Affleck’s best work is as a character actor, but he is trapped by his leading man looks). Fortunately Morgan Freeman, calmly contributing another of his wise mentor roles, offers sterling support. Schreiber and Cromwell are also good in key roles.

This is a very traditional, quite old-school thriller, inspired by a combination of Goldfinger and 1970s political thrillers. It’s not a special film – and not even the best in the franchise – but it is invariably entertaining, has a host of well-done scenes, and barrels along. Robinson also has an eye for tension in smaller sequences – a marvellously tense scene simply involves Ryan trying to get a card swipe machine to work – although he is less confident with some of the action. But in showing how quickly our trigger happy masters can push towards Armageddon, this is a film that seems to be endlessly relevant. And wouldn’t you rather have Nemerov of even Fowler running the US than Trump?