North Korea, nukes and Hollywood: Top Armageddon movies to watch

As the world teeters on the brink, the silver screen gives us clues to the future. Photo: Universal Pictures

HONOLULU, April 6, 2013 – When North Korea began ratcheting up its bellicose threats a few months ago, many young Americans who were born after the fall of the Soviet Union began to wonder what would happen if nuclear war actually broke out. During the forty four years of the Cold War, the politics and high stakes fears of the era often expressed itself on the silver screen with some of the most incredible dramas ever made. Here are some of the best nuclear brinkmanship films to watch:

By Dawn’s Early Light (1990)
The HBO made-for-TV movie By Dawn’s Early Light is one of the most terrifying and technically detailed nuclear war films ever created. With an all-star cast including Powers Boothe, Rebecca De Mornay, James Earl Jones, and Martin Landau as a Ronald Reagan-like president, By Dawn’s Early Light is the story of a thermonuclear exchange triggered by rogue Russian agents who launch a NATO missile from Turkey against the Soviet city of Donetsk.

With a tale of crisis management, continuity of government and nuclear fears unfolding against the backdrop of scarcely seen locations such as the former Strategic Air Command bunker, the E-4B National Emergency Command Plane, the Looking Glass Plane and more, By Dawn’s Early Light is an incredible film that surprisingly few have seen.

The Power of Decision (1958)
The United States Air Force internally produced the movie The Power of Decision in 1958 to portray how its airborne alert force would respond to a Soviet nuclear attack and what technologies and strategies would be employed in time of war. Filmed in the actual Omaha command center and featuring real officers, The Power of Decision is the most accurate (though dated) nuclear war film you’ll ever see. The film is available to watch and download for free online both at the U.S. Archives website and on YouTube.

Fail-Safe (1964)
Based on the 1962 bestselling novel by the same name, Fail-Safe is the story of a B-58 Hustler crew that accidentally flies past its aerial positive control (or “fail-safe” point) after a Russian electronic warfare test causes their codebox to accidentally display a “go” code to initiate nuclear war. Comparable to Dr. Strangelove (and later masterfully remade in 2000 by CBS) Fail-Safe visits the high-level hotline negotiations between the U.S. president and Soviet premier and the drama of being in bunker lockdown.

On The Beach (1959)
When a U.S. nuclear submarine flees to Australia after a full scale nuclear exchange, its crew finds temporary comfort in a continent yet untouched by war but soon to suffer the effects of deadly radioactive fallout. On The Beach is a psychological drama which explores the survivor’s guilt of nuclear conflict and the human crisis of preparing for extinction. Dark yet strangely inspiring, the film’s cast of Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins delivers a stunning end of the world performance.

“COBRA DANE is this an exercise?” As tensions flare over the divided Koreas, Hollywood offers insights to future war scenarios. (AP File Photo)

A Gathering Of Eagles (1963)
Rock Hudson plays the tough wing commander of a Strategic Air Command base with bombers and ICBMs under his command in A Gathering of Eagles, a classic film which accurately portrays the unforgiving demands of nuclear alert. Filmed at Beale AFB, the movie is full of real life locations and features no shortage of actual U.S. military aircraft. From scenes of the commander dealing with alcoholic officers to B-52 crews that can’t take off under fifteen minutes, A Gathering of Eagles is a powerful depiction of life on an Air Force base under threat of war.

WarGames (1983)
Matthew Broderick’s role as a teen computer nerd who inadvertently hacks into a prototype computer controlling the U.S. nuclear arsenal in WarGames will forever stand as one of the best icons of the Cold War Eighties. Though thin on accuracy, WarGames features elaborately constructed bunker scenes and the terrifying drama of policymakers counting down to war as each perceived escalation leads to the nuclear DEFCON meter shifting one notch closer to nuclear launch. The film’s visuals have left such a lasting impression on both pop culture and politics that it even inspired a modern day video game by Introversion, DEFCON.

The promotional trailer for HOMEFRONT (2011)
Though this doesn’t actually count as either a movie or a Cold War film, in light of recent events you might want to check out the strangely prophetic promotional story trailer for the THQ game HOMEFRONT. Produced just before the death of Kim Jong-il, the short film depicts the United States military scaling down and withdrawing as a result of economic decline and energy market instability. In the promotional FRONTLINE documentary style trailer, Kim Jong-un rises to power and leads a conquest of Asia that leads to an orbital nuclear attack on the United States.

Check it out on YouTube – you’ll feel safer already.


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Danny de Gracia

Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs committees at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, Danny has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. Now working on his first novel, Danny resides on the island of Oahu.

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