A COWARD may die a thousand times before his death, a morbid kid can be killed over and over in his own mind by phantom Soviet warheads. This was me in the mid-1980s, between the ages of 7 and 12. I spent, or lost, that much of my youth priming for nuclear holocaust, projecting scenarios onto the Republic of Ireland:
Multi-megaton payloads airbusting above my bright green Roman Catholic parish in the foothills of the Dublin mountains. Neutron bombs going off to leave my house, school, and church intact while turning my body to a pillar of fire, then a pile of red dust. A single ballistic missile homing in on me with evil animus, its shrieking arc over continental Europe ending on contact with the top of my skull. Would I be crushed by the weight of the device itself, or was the firing mechanism so hair-trigger that I’d be atomized by the blast before it could bear down further?
“For a split second, you’d have to feel the very point, with the terrible mass above … ” wrote Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow, as the quasi-clairvoyant British secret agent Pirate Prentice contemplates taking a direct hit to the head from an incoming German V-2 rocket. I didn’t read that novel until many years later, and it gave me the idea that even the most solipsistic of nuclear terrors were shared by others on the same psychic wavelength. That even my boyhood nightmares might have been intercepted by subterranean war planners.
In retrospect, it wasn’t really paranoid or fanciful to think of yourself as a target back then, to take the prospect of extinction so personally. Another key text of the Cold War, Jonathan Schell’s non-fiction rumination The Fate Of The Earth, crunched the available data to outline a conjectural Soviet attack on the US and Western Europe circa 1982. Schell envisioned a Russian missile commander who had already let fly with enough ordnance to take out every major population center, blanketing the map in “zones of universal death.”
Such was the overkill capacity of his weapons cache that he still had 97% left to deploy. So what should he do with the rest? “Above several thousand megatons,” suggested Schell, “it would almost become a matter of trying to hunt down individual people with nuclear warheads.” What a thought, what an image. I first came across it in a compendium volume, The Jonathan Schell Reader, only after the author died in 2014, and it struck me like a recovered memory.
That great writer-campaigner had done as much as anyone to advance the moral philosophy of non-proliferation – The Fate Of The Earth was a secular Book of Revelations for the Nuclear Freeze movement in the US. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Schell continued to worry. A vital nervous tension seemed to leave the body politic, while the cause for alarm had barely abated. Even after massive reductions on the terms of arms control agreements, thousands of missiles remained in their silos under the Ural Mountains and Wyoming grasslands – each one practically fizzing and forever ready to pop, like a can of Coke in a paint shaker. But the surface world was already forgetting, and the young in particular seemed unaware, and unafraid.
“The post-Cold War generation knows less about nuclear danger than any other,” Schell told the New York Times in 2000. He drew on the contemporary blockbuster Armageddon (1998) to make his point, a movie that reversed the “normal iconic imagery of nuclear weapons” to repurpose them as drilling tools, essential kit for saving humanity from the arbitrary hazard of an incoming asteroid. Twenty years on, we have yet to find a good use for all these home-made planet-killers, while the US and Russia modernize their arsenals with newfangled hypersonic boost-glide systems, uranium-tipped torpedo drones and low-yield “tactical” gravity bombs.
And yet we don’t make movies about nuclear war any more. In early 2018, just days before that false ballistic missile alert on the Hawaiian Islands, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published an essay to that effect by an eighth-grader named Cassandra Williams. Agitated by a class on the subject at her middle school in Dubuque, Iowa, Williams conducted her own extra-curricular research. She searched out old films she’d never seen or heard of, and found herself “completely stunned” by The Day After, the 1983 TV feature that dramatised the results of Russian missiles raining on Middle America. Citing “the unpredictable behaviour of North Korea and our current US president”, she identified an urgent need for updated equivalents with upgraded special effects – the better to show her peer group what might yet actually happen.
“You can read about it, and you can hear about it, but actually seeing it is a different story,” she wrote. “Thousands of people vaporized in less than a second, buildings toppling on people faster than they can react … If you want to get a millennial’s attention, make a movie about it. There are plenty of dystopian movies today, but far too few about nuclear war.”
As an obsessive viewer and amateur scholar of pre-apocalyptic cinema, I’ve got a stockpile of vintage VHS tapes and DVDs that Cassandra and her classmates could borrow (assuming they have access to the obsolete machines required to play those formats) while they wait for Hollywood studios and streaming services to show them what a thoroughly contemporary omnicide would look like. Much of my collection goes way back before my own time, to the period of the first A and H-bomb tests on South Pacific atolls and Nevada proving grounds.
The original image of the Nuclear Age, the sight of what Don DeLillo later called “that weird peeled eyeball exploding over the desert”, released a certain dread energy into postwar popular culture. It powered cheap, bleak sci-fi B-movies and Red Scare freakouts like Invasion USA (1952) and The Day The World Ended (1955). Just after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Fail Safe (1964) made sober melodrama out of borderline hysteria, while rival production Dr Strangelove (1964) went the other way, isolating the demon core of hollow laughter in the doctrine of mutually assured destruction.
Adapting Peter George’s novel Red Alert, director Stanley Kubrick turned his fabled pedantry on nuclear command-and-control protocols, to study them as closely as he was able without top secret clearance. His genius was to find them essentially comedic in premise and construction, and follow their absurd internal logic to an all-destroying punchline – our ultimate weapon blows up in our stupid faces like a joke cigar. Professionals in the field weren’t laughing.
In his recent memoir The Doomsday Machine: Confessions Of A Nuclear War Planner, Daniel Ellsberg recalls taking an afternoon off from the Pentagon to go see Dr Strangelove in the winter of ‘64. A consultant for the RAND Corporation with inside knowledge of strategic thinking, Ellsberg was “dumbstruck by the realism” of certain plot-points. It was, to him, “a documentary.”
(Half a century later, he titled that new book after the world-ending device invented by Strangelove himself, and which had its real-life counterpart in the USSR’s Perimiter defense system, also known as the Dead Hand. Designed to set off the whole Soviet missile array, instantly and automatically, if an incoming strike was detected, it is still believed by Ellsberg and others to be the operative reflex-action of the present day Russian Federation.)
The frostiest spells in superpower relations gave rise to rashes of movies that would often seem uncannily sensitive to prevailing anxiety levels. My own youth was a fertile period for this stuff – that jittery late peak of the Cold War, marked by scary military manouveres at the edge of Europe and all that crazy talk of Star Wars particle beams that would zap enemy warheads in mid-flight above the Earth. The fall of 1983 saw a peculiar cluster of films, released like a salvo.
WarGames, The Dead Zone and Testament all appeared in US theaters within weeks of each other, across October and November of that year. Respectively, they showed: a teenage hacker almost trigger World War III by accident, with early, eiree computer graphics representing missile vectors and impact sites on the giant strategic display board in the NORAD command bunker. A malignant idiot of a president launch a preemptive strike on the Soviet Union to fulfill his demented sense of destiny (“The missiles are flying, hallelujah!”). And a California suburb in the twilight of civilization, its residents dying one by one from postwar radiation fallout.
The Day After was a bigger deal than any of these, broadcast by NBC on November 20 and watched by more than 100 million, which is still one of the largest audience shares in TV history. Even by the standards of the day it was somewhat soapy and cheesy, like an after school special set among stock characters around the college town of Lawrence, Kansas. The war itself only took a few minutes of screen time and looked about as authentic as the network had the budget and stomach for. Warheads hit home in color-filtered blasts, intercut with archival bomb-test footage. Civilians were turned to skeletons with spooky X-Ray effects. Scenes of a razed Kansas City were superimposed over LIFE magazine photos from post-atomic Hiroshima.
Director Nicholas Meyer admitted that his priority was not so much to make “a good movie” as a “gigantic public service announcement”, and on those terms he effectively blew out the windows of living rooms across America. He rattled the bulletproof glass at Camp David too, where the film was screened for President Ronald Reagan about a month earlier, on Columbus Day. Reagan wrote in his diary that it left him “greatly depressed”, and all the more determined to avoid a nuclear conflict, though no less assured that deterrence was the best way to do it.
In the intervening weeks, before the public broadcast of The Day After, he went ahead with Able Archer 83, a real-world war game played out by NATO forces in Western Europe – an exercise so lifelike in simulating a Warsaw Pact attack as to almost provoke an actual hot response from the USSR. And this was barely a couple of months after Soviet satellites mistook a unusual array of sunlight on high-altitude clouds for five inbound American missiles, a false alarm that would have led to a counter-strike if not for sceptical lieutenant colonel, Stanislav Petrov.
Confidential information at the time, these events are now matters of record, recently unpacked in Peter Anthony’s documentary The Man Who Saved The World, and Taylor Dowling’s book 1983: The World At The Brink. According to Dowling, even Reagan didn’t realise how badly he shook up the Russians that November, and when he found out he was shaken himself. Looking back, it seems that those in nominal control were the slowest to pick up on the fear in the air.
The rest of us, kept in the dark, had a better sense of the danger we were in. There were signs and warnings in the flickering and glowing of movie screens and TV sets, there were rumblings outside in the streets. That same autumn, millions of protesters rallied with the Nuclear Freeze movement in the US, with the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament in the UK, with unwieldy coalitions of leftist groups, green activists and church organizations in West Germany.
The superpowers were bipolar, the fear stretched between them like a magnetic field. We were all exposed – we could feel it inside us and around us, as if already irradiated. Martin Amis opened his short story collection Einstein’s Monsters with a useful diagnostic essay: “In every conceivable sense (and then, synergistically, in more senses than that), nuclear weapons make you sick. What toxicity, what power, what range. They are there and I am here – they are inert, I am alive – yet still they make me want to throw up, they make me feel sick to my stomach, they make me feel as if a child of mine has been out too long, much too long, and already it is getting dark.”
A prize British baby boomer, born in 1949 and raised in the proverbial shadow of the bomb, Amis wrote that he had never given nukes much thought until he first became a father, and soon after first read Jonathan Schell. My own mother was the exact same age as him, but she only seemed to worry that I was so worried. I was seven in 1983, the year I made my first holy communion, and too young, in her view, to be so timorous, yet so curious, about nuclear weapons. She watched me watching the six o’ clock news, and put her hand to the weird heat that bloomed on my forehead as factory-fresh SS-20 missiles were rolled through Red Square.
Her idea of reassurance was to play the neutrality card, the first and last resort of sensible grown-ups in the south of Ireland during the Cold War: “Why in God’s name would the Russians bother pointing one of those at us?” Sitting on a sofa roughly half-way between Moscow and Washington DC, I tried to imagine a global thermonuclear exchange that would spare no-one but the Irish. Frankly, I found both of my parents and most of my teachers to be wilfully ignorant or eye-rollingly naive on the subject, and spent my primary school years learning more from movies I was not allowed to watch.
In that golden age of home video, it was sport for kids to get their hands on illicit cassettes that seemed to promise what we now call “adult themes.” Is nuclear war an adult theme? Because that’s what I wanted to see, and I couldn’t claim it was all educational. I was very much into Dreamscape, for example, a bit of folderol from 1984 about a dubious college project using goofy telepathic gadgetry to infiltrate the minds of sleeping volunteers. One of these is the US president, who hopes to cure his chronic nightmares about pushing the red button, and wants to ban the bomb completely. This upsets the military-industrial hardliners, so they send in a shape-shifting assassin – part-ninja, part-cobra – to kill the commander-in-chief while his subconscious self travels in a train full of mutants across a nuked-out landscape (dreamscape).
Yes, even that kind of dreck could give me the grim validation I was after. But I went in for realism too, and paid careful attention to Countdown To Looking Glass (also from 1984), a relatively obscure Canadian TV movie presented as “live” news coverage of a buildup to nuclear conflict, with mock bulletins, scripted inserts and talking-head interviews. Then-youngish Republican congressman Newt Gingrich appeared as himself to argue in all sincerity that armageddon would be preferable to a global communist ascendency.
I didn’t know who the guy was then, nor fully understand what his problem was, but the gist of it made me think that war was inevitable. If asked, I would have struggled to explain why I needed to see these films, to rewind and rewatch them over and over, when they left me clammy with doom-sweat. But even that reaction felt somehow medicinal – every movie about nuclear war provided an inoculating dose of my own dread, and each repeat viewing was like a booster shot. They made me feverish, but they strengthened my resistance.
And it went on that way until just before Christmas 1987, when Reagan and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Both sides agreed to remove their missiles from Europe. Everyone seemed to be friends all of a sudden. Gorbachev himself was presented by the English-language press as an almost cuddly figure – that birthmark on his scalp was downright kissable. The sense of relief lasted decades, through the Yeltsin years and into the Putin era, as multiple conventional conflicts created non-nuclear flashpoints, from the NATO bombing of the Balkans to the immolations of Iraq, Libya, Syria.
In early 2019, the INF treaty was allowed to lapse, and its 30-year-lifespan can now be seen as a closed loop, a historical bubble. At least one Western demographic grew up within it, and without the expectation of imminent death. Millenials, or Generation Y, and the younger kids of Generation Z, have their own future to fear, as wildfires and glacier melt herald a slower-boil apocalypse than the flash-bang ending their elders waited for. There’s nothing funny about this, but we Gen-Xers tend to fall back on our twin defense mechanisms of irony and apathy. Which is to say that we make self-conscious jokes on social media about how we can’t quite rouse ourselves to combat climate change because we never thought we’d survive the Cold War.
Now it seems that there’s another one breaking out. We have lately entered some strange new phase of the Nuclear Age – a hectic yet regressive era marked by half-assed summit meetings and willy-nilly rearmament, presided over by a free world leader prone to sending out mixed signals on Twitter from the White House master bedroom in the dead of night. Praise for enemies, insults for allies, wild mood swings from obsequious peacemaking overtures to taunting, subliterate brinkmanship.
I try to tell myself that those long-dormant missiles weren’t waiting to be woken by someone like Donald Trump, but I began to suspect as much when he was still relatively harmless – just the most ludicrously unlikely candidate on the campaign trail. It felt like a childhood illness recurring, to watch that deranged town hall interview in which Trump refused to rule out deploying nukes in Europe. Or to read about his single short meeting with a senior foreign policy advisor, whom he reportedly asked three times: “If we have them, why can’t we use them?”
A few years on, past the mid-way point of his first term as president, I’m as vexed as any leftist that he’s still in office, but also pleasantly surprised that he hasn’t pushed the button by now. I don’t take for granted that he won’t. His sycophancy toward Vladmir Putin, and latterly Kim Jong-Un, is not reflected in his nuclear posture. His isolationism – his aversion to foreign entanglements – does not preclude sending warships to battle stations off the coast of Iran. I called Rachel Brosnan, president and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, to ask if Trump might yet be the death of us all, and she told me I was missing the bigger picture.
“He highlights vulnerabilities, and tends to exacerbate them, but the cracks were already there,” said Bronson, from the Bulletin’s head office at the University of Chicago. “The Russians are again leaning on nukes as part of their military doctrine. China seems to be developing second-strike capabilities. Pakistan has the fastest growing arsenal on the planet, and the effects of any conflict with India will be not limited to those countries. Across the nuclear landscape, there’s been a change in geopolitics that puts more emphasis on these weapons.”
If kids today don’t know what kind of trouble this means, Brosnan won’t be the one to blame them for not keeping up. They are badly briefed, she said, and distracted by the other forces ranged against them. “Famine, drought, human trafficking, school shootings … I think the sense of existential threat among young people is more intense than ever, but also more diffuse.”
I could not hear the Doomsday Clock ticking behind Bronson as she spoke, but it was up there on the wall at the Harris School of Public Policy. That device was only given a literal, physical form earlier this year, a readable face for visitors to come and fixate upon. Until then it had been purely conceptual, first designed as a semi-abstract cover image for the June 1947 edition of the Bulletin, by landscape painter Martyl Langsdorf.
Langsdorf’s husband Alexander had worked on the Manhattan Project. The physicist who extracted the first speck of plutonium from the cyclotron, he profoundly objected to its use in the bomb later dropped on Nagasaki, and co-founded the Bulletin as a means of opposing nuclear proliferation. His wife was drafted in to design a neat piece of iconography that would cut a clean line through a complex of related technical, political and ethical issues. She initially set the hands at seven to midnight for aesthetic effect. “It looked good to my eye,” said Langsdorf.
Her clock has since been reset 23 times, synchronized to editorial risk assessments by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board. It has never been further from midnight than seventeen minutes (in the sunny post-Soviet year of 1991), nor closer than it is right now. In early 2018, the hands were wound to the same position that they last held in 1953, when the US and USSR detonated their first hydrogen bombs: two minutes to midnight. Atomic time has spiralled, like a misfiring test rocket, and brought us back around to the point of self-extinction, with climate change and ominous emerging technologies now also factored in to the clock-keeping.
The device still works, said Brosnan, in terms of drawing attention. “But attention is so much more divided these days. And young people are just not as focused as a cohort on nuclear weapons, with so many other things to worry about. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not really reference points for them, as they were for us. We need these kids, we need their smarts, so we need new images to engage and motivate them. And film-makers have a role to play in that, like Stanley Kubrick did, and Nicholas Meyer.” The days of those directors are long past, of course.
The former capitalized on the heightened mood of the period, and Kubrick himself proposed marketing Dr Strangelove as “the most exploitable film of recent times.” The latter had an almost captive audience when watching TV meant a choice of three networks. But viewing habits and platforms have since changed beyond recognition, and movies about nuclear war were never much of a commercial proposition anyway. No such film has ever been a huge box office hit, unless you count Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), in which the war is only rendered as a brief, shocking dream sequence, and the real apocalypse is averted, or deferred.
Or something like last summer’s Mission Impossible: Fallout, in which the world’s holy cities are seen destroyed by stolen nuclear bombs, but these explosions turn out to be faked, while the actual weapons are chased down and defused – the last one at the last second by Tom Cruise, hanging by his fingertips from a Kashmiri cliff. These are not films about the end of everything, but about the opposite: salvation, or redemption. Or to put it in the words of Australian academic Mick Broderick, they fall within an abiding cultural tradition of “western narratives based around Judeo-Christian mythology, though Persian Zoastroism had the same idea even before that.”
“The belief that history has meaning and direction, the concept of a messianic moment. At the worst time, the end time, a savior will come … ” I contacted Broderick at Murdoch University in Perth, the most isolated major city on the planet, where he works as a professor of media analysis. He literally wrote the book on atomic cinema, or Nuclear Movies: A Critical Analysis And Filmography. His more recent book Reconstructing Strangelove: Inside Stanley Kubrick’s Nightmare Comedy, included new evidence that Kubrick had seriously considered moving to Perth in 1962, as his best chance of escaping a nuclear holocaust. (But he was famously afraid to fly, and the thought of sharing a bathroom on a six-week sea voyage apparently put him off.)
Broderick grew up in Melbourne, the setting for Neville Shute’s 1957 novel On The Beach and its 1959 movie adaptation, which cast his home town as the last place on Earth to receive the waves of radiation that have killed off the rest of the world.
“That film presents the end of all life as a kind of entropic process,” he said. “Systems wind down as the fallout circulates, people start to euthanize themselves. But of course it doesn’t actually show the impact of nuclear weapons, the millions of decaying corpses. Instead you see these deserted metropolises, this continuous evocation of ‘where’s everybody gone?’.”
The empty city has been common to these movies since the advent of the bomb, from early 1950s drive-in fodder like Five (only five people have survived the third world war, one of whom is a neo-Nazi) to latter-day megabudget sci-fi sequel Blade Runner: 2049, in which Harrison Ford hides out for decades on a vacant Las Vegas Strip.
“Vegas has been nuked,” said Broderick, “but the palaces remain.” Tracking and cataloguing on-screen warheads like a weapons inspector, he has identified other tropes and patterns in the stories told around them, and made notes on audience preferences. To take a prime example, they prefer to see the countdown to destruction stopped late in the game by “some maverick superhero or spy or special agent, endowed with insights or abilities no-one really has.”
They also tend to enjoy parables and allegories that take place long after the worst already happened. The smoke has cleared to show that the world didn’t end, but was merely changed back to some ancient or medieval state of barbarism, where the survivors are locked in some primal, eternal struggle. “These story conventions can be pretty reactionary,” said Broderick.
“They often come down to the preservation of patriarchal lore and law. You see the same thing in disaster films – it’s basically how mass entertainment works, and many of these movies are popular because they play to a narrative that has proven successful throughout history.” (He gave 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road some credit for “going against the grain in terms of gender and disability.”)
It is much more unusual, said Broderick, to see a movie that stares directly into the blast, and reflects on what a nuclear war would really mean. He could only think of a handful, prime among them being Barefoot Gen (1983) the Japanese anime film adapted from Keiji Nakazawa’s manga series about his own experience as a hibakusha, or atom bomb survivor.
“This incredible sequence in the middle shows the bombing of Hiroshima as a psychedelic hell on Earth, in washed out or hyperrealized colors. People burned to charcoal, glass shearing out of windows to perforate children. Now if you tried to do that mimetically, in a photorealistic drama, it would be incredibly confronting. We wouldn’t have the capacity to look at it without turning away or shutting down. This is where Kubrick realized he needed to use humor, to move beyond the human tendency toward denial, and disavowal.”
So Kubrick ended his movie, and the world, in a musical montage of mushroom clouds, using original footage shot by US Air Force cameramen in spotter planes to replicate a God’s-eye view of our extinction – aloof, rueful, ethereal. That perpective allows for beauty too. In the course of his research, Broderick has interviewed observers from various bomb test sites, and many told him that they were glad, for lack of a better word, to have seen these things go off.
“This sense of the divine in the spectacular apparition of a nuclear detonation. What comes after is horrible burns and sickness, razed cities, firestorms. But before all that is the sublime flowering of these weapons, and the sublime has always been about terror, an awe you can’t even hold in your mind. If we don’t recognize a kind of majesty in the geometric creation of these things, if we don’t admit that there’s some perverse attraction in their phenomenal power to change atmospheres and landscapes, then we’re probably not coming to terms with them.”
That attraction speaks to my own fascination with the bomb. A Freudian might call it a fetish, and source it to the so-called “death drive.” At some point in childhood, I fused nuclear weapons with the concept of mortality. My Catholic education never really took – the priests were too vague on the details to make dying sound in any way appealing. I didn’t like the thought of doing it alone. One day I’d be gone, and life would go on without me. But not in the event of a nuclear war. The mathemetician-musician Tom Lehrer put it best in that jaunty “survival hymn” he wrote after working in the labs at Los Alamos: We Will All Go Together When We Go.
“For if the bomb that drops on you/Gets all your friends and neighbors too/There’ll be nobody left behind to grieve … ” So, there is something obscurely consoling about a movie from which none of us get out alive. Only the bleakest film ever made would refuse us even the cold comfort of oblivion, and force us to watch the slow, painful expiration of human culture, or what remains of it, over generations of post-war trauma and misery. And that film is Threads (1984).
Commissioned for the BBC in line with that network’s remit as a public service broadcaster – to educate, in this case, more than entertain – it was presented in the US as a British answer to The Day After, but the American effort plays like a singalong with Elmo and some muppet penguins by comparison. Threads was and is something else, having much more in common with Peter Watkins’s earlier docudrama The War Game (1965), which was also made for the BBC but judged to be “too horrific for the medium of broadcasting.” (By some accounts the government ordered corporation bosses not to air it, which they didn’t until 1985, though it somehow won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1966, despite being fictional.)
The threads of the title are the bonds of family, community, society, severed by a 200-megaton missile strike against the UK, as experienced by a couple of lower and middle-class households in the industrial city of Sheffield. It begins with their powerless witness of the escalation to conflict in the Persian Gulf, casting nervous glances toward TV news bulletins at home or in the pub, and it ends with the daughter of the only survivor delivering a stillborn baby in the depths of nuclear winter, her stunted grasp of language giving way to a final howl.
Novelist Barry Hines wrote the screenplay with diligent reference to existing civil defense plans and then-recent scientific papers, and director Mick Jackson rendered it in a neutral, neorealist style, reusing some of the material he had assembled for the popular science program QED: A Guide To Armageddon. They consulted doctors, physicists, psychologists, agronomists, climatologists, weapons specialists and strategists for the sake of verisimilitude. The result was difficult to process as a film, its pitiless gaze taking in the viewer too – the abyss staring back.
“It is art that cancels all aesthetic distance between our unthinking and the unthinkable,” wrote the London-based American fantasy author Russell Hoban in one of many mortified reviews around the initial UK air date of September 23, 1984. Everyone who saw it was scarred. Thirty-five years later, the Scottish nuclear journalist Julie McDowall told me that the broadcast was one of her earliest memories, recalling in particular the vivid image of glass milk bottles melting on the doorstep of a suburban house. She was three at the time.
“Maybe my parents thought I was too young to understand,” said McDowall. “But I remember thinking, ‘How can this be? The world can end, and none of these adults are able to stop it? No-one can save me, not even my Gran?’ It’s dreadful to learn so young that there is no safety.”
McDowall now calls herself the Atomic Hobo, the name also given to her popular podcast on the bomb and its cultural history. She travels to bunkers and shelters from the farmlands of Scotland to the tunnels under Budapest, reports from the Chernobyl exclusion zone, records serio-comic editorials on the chillingly banal official literature issued by national defense ministries obliged to misinform their publics that a nuclear exchange would be surviveable.
I’m a fan of her work because I share so many of her preoccupations, and I admire her readiness to talk about how they have affected her mental health. McDowall has often spoken of the breakdown she suffered in 2009, when she couldn’t go outside for weeks in large part because was afraid of the sky. “I’m certain that this fear was enchanced by my interest in nuclear war,” she said. “The sky is where the bomb or missile comes from, it’s where the blinding flash will be.
“Civil defense advice demands we take cover, don’t look at it, don’t be caught in the open. I’m still suceptible to panic attacks, which tend to hit me when I’m outside, and I get the same overwhelmed feeling.” I asked McDowall if immersion in the subject had been helpful, if knowledge is its own form of defense, against those internal attacks at least.
She said that working on the podcast, and a forthcoming book, had merely replaced her sense of terror with a feeling of hopelessless. “So I don’t think it’s helped, unless you think that’s an improvement. Maybe it is?” When it comes to nuclear war in films and fiction, McDowall confessed to being a humorless purist. “I only want realism. Anything light, or surreal, is near blasphemy to me. If the dread doesn’t linger for days then the film hasn’t done its job.”
Threads is still the only movie that really works for her in that respect, though she doesn’t think it would have the same impact if released today. The danger might be growing again, she said, but the horror is no longer universal. “A film like that would be wasted now, I think. People wouldn’t rally around it. We’re so fractured by our politics that we’d just split into ridiculous little camps. We’re too concerned with trivia and minutae, I fear.”
McDowall didn’t have much time for my own favorite entry in our fairly niche subgenre of choice. Miracle Mile (1988) always seemed too romantic for her tastes, too essentially unreal in its dreamy mood and music, its late-80s neon glow. That low-key indie feature was released 30 years ago this spring, at the tail end of the Cold War. It bombed hard enough at the box office to make the obvious pun redundant, then haunted the margins to cultivate a like-minded audience on VHS and cable TV, at midnight screenings and apocalyptic film festivals.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. The movie has its own Doomsday Clock, not analog but digital, an LED dot matrix readout on a Space Age sign outside Johnie’s Coffee Shop in Los Angeles, revolving beneath a full moon. The time is 4:03 AM and the payphone is ringing in the parking lot. A young jazz trombonist named Harry (Anthony Edwards) picks it up, hoping to hear from Julie (Mare Winningham), the waitress he met and fell in love with the previous afternoon.
“It’s happening!” says a male voice instead. “I can’t believe it but we’re locked in! Fifty minutes and counting!” The caller has the wrong number, having misdialled in a panic while trying to reach his dad from the missile silo where he works in North Dakota. He claims that the US is about to launch a full preemptive strike against Soviet targets. For what reason, he has no idea.
“Why would we, huh?” By his watch, the enemy counterstrike will start falling on American cities in “an hour and 10.” The trombonist naturally asks if this a prank, and the caller wails in authentic-sounding anguish. There are shouts in the background, then gunshots. A more stentorian voice comes on the line, telling Harry to forget what he heard and go back to sleep. Click. That moment marks one of the most disconcerting tonal shifts in cinema – a sort of wake-up call that the hero has to act on without ever being sure that it’s not just a nightmare.
The rest of the film plays out in those remaining 70 minutes, as Harry tries to find and save his perfect girl while spreading pandaemonium through the pre-dawn streets, like Chicken Little in a loose-fitting blue suit. Spoiler alert: the sky is really falling, though it’s still in doubt until the last few seconds. Three vapor trails streak over the Hollywood Hills and down into the LA basin, the conjoined blast shredding buildings and melting eyeballs. The electro-magnetic pulse brings down the helicopter our two lovers are escaping in, and they sink into the La Brea tar pits, to die and – hopes Harry – be turned into diamonds. Not a happy ending, then, but surely happier than if they’d lived, in the circumstances? And if the movie isn’t realistic, per se, is this not how it would happen, for most of us? Little or no warning, not enough time to run and nowhere to go anyway.
“All those chances … ” says Julie as she tries to accept that her life is about to end, along with everyone else’s. The whole human race eulogized in one short, unfinished line. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt never made another movie after Miracle Mile. It had taken him a decade to secure financing – in part because he wouldn’t change that ending – and by the time he got the money the moment had passed. A film written just before Reagan came to power, and called the USSR an “evil empire”, was finally released the same year the Berlin Wall came down.
“I was on a mission to mess people up,” said De Jarnatt when I contacted him in LA. “I wanted them to really think about this threat, and I wanted it to come out of the blue. So, I was a bit disappointed it didn’t hit theaters in 1982, when it would really have shocked audiences. But it was a long odyssey.” He preferred to dispel some of the industry lore around the eventual release. It wasn’t a complete flop, and did well enough on VHS that he was owed $400,000 in residuals when production company Hemdale went bankrupt. And he didn’t exactly disappear afterward. De Jarnatt kept writing and directing for TV, and went on to publish short stories.
A few journalists came to him for comment in 2017, when Trump and Kim Jong-Un engaged in a round of nuclear-armed schoolyard provocations, and again when Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency sent out that public warning to seek shelter from an incoming missile – briefly putting islanders in the same position as Harry after his phone call. De Jarnatt told them the same thing he tells fans at special repertory and roadshow screenings of Miracle Mile.
“Even though it has that 1980s Cold War aspect to it, I always say that the attack is even more likely to happen now, tonight, than back then when everyone was on hair-trigger alert. The odds of an accident have always been so high that I’m amazed it hasn’t happened yet. I think it’s inevitable that some city will get blown off the face of the Earth. And with the current disintegration of truth and common sense I’m feeling more apocalyptic than ever, I’m afraid.”
By his own admission, Miracle Mile has dated in many other ways. The clothes, the haircuts, that gorgeous synthesized score by Tangerine Dream (I’d argue that the soundtrack is a keeper). The sexual politics seem a bit off too. Harry never seems to consider if he’s doing the right thing by waking Julie up, by presuming to save her – wouldn’t it be kinder to let her sleep through the end of the world? He’s not even straight with her about it, pretending that they’re en route to some lovely surprise, until hell breaks loose on Wiltshire Boulevard. But De Jarnatt wanted that one saving grace in the face of annihilation: “to be with the one you love.” Who would not wish for the same?
Martin Amis put it this way in his aforementioned essay, titled Thinkability: “The correct attitude to nuclear war is one of suicidal defeatism. Let no one think that it is thinkable. Dispel any interest in surviving, in lasting. Have no part of it. Be ready to turn in your hand. For myself and my loved ones, I want the heat, which comes at the speed of light. I don’t want to have to hang about for the blast, which idles along at the speed of sound.”
I’d rather not agree with Amis, a brilliant writer I have never liked, but there it is. I don’t want to think about any of this so soon after my baby daughter was born, but that delight goes hand in hand with something close to despondency. And I don’t know if fear is passed down genetically, but if she doesn’t inherit mine then she’ll surely develop her own – a product of her environment, so to speak. It may also be that I have restarted worrying about the bomb out of a hardwired Gen-X impulse to blame someone else for the state of the world my girl will grow up in. Nuclear war was always something that would be done to us. Climate change is what we have done, and are still doing.
I’ll confess to my own guilt and shame, but I’ll never let go of the hate in my heart for the men who wield these weapons, who act like they might use them, who barely bother to hide that they actually want to. Those of us who despise the principle and practice of deterrence no doubt appear terribly sophomoric to those who deal in realpolitik, but I can live with that while wishing death upon them. I fantasize about a more perfect Doomsday Machine, distributed to every nuclear nation, that kills only the person who pushes the button – turns them to a pillar of fire, then a pile of red dust.
In the real event of course, whoever starts a nuclear war is also the best positioned to survive one. However it happened – mistake or miscalculation, computer glitch or cyber-hack, some limited tactical skirmish escalating to a larger conflict, old-fashioned wanton aggression in the name of national sovereignty – there would likely be time for presidents and generals to retreat to their bunkers. And the only culture left would reside in whatever works of art are stored down there.
I’m assuming that the personal tastes of present leaders would be incorporated into the archives. Trump, for example, once made plain in a New Yorker profile that his favorite film is Bloodsport, a trashy kickboxing flick with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Kim Jong-Un grew up watching his father’s beloved collection of Bond movies. Vladmir Putin is a fan and friend of the bloated, noxious martial artist and direct-to-video action star Steven Seagal.
It would be the crowning irony of our civilization for these dictators to sit beneath the burning Earth, draining fuel reserves from underground generators to keep the juice flowing to their entertainment systems, watching movie after movie about self-styled tough guys saving the world. Until, one day, the power runs out, the lights snap off, the screen goes dead.