Watching the End of the World
The Doomsday Clock is set to two minutes to midnight—the same position it held in 1953, when the United States and USSR detonated their first hydrogen bombs. So why don't we make movies about nuclear war anymore?
June 11, 2019
Jun 11, 2019
31 Min read time
The Doomsday Clock is set to two minutes to midnight—the same position it held in 1953, when the United States and USSR detonated their first hydrogen bombs. So why don't we make movies about nuclear war anymore?
A coward may die a thousand times before his death—and a morbid kid can be killed over and over by phantom Soviet warheads. That was me in the mid-1980s, between the ages of seven and twelve. I spent, or lost, that much of my youth priming for nuclear holocaust, projecting scenarios onto the Republic of Ireland.
Multi-megaton payloads bursting above my bright green Roman Catholic parish in the foothills of the Dublin mountains. Neutron bombs leaving 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 (1973), as the quasi-clairvoyant British secret agent Pirate Prentice contemplates taking a direct hit to the head from an incoming German V-2 rocket. When I read that novel many years later, I recognized my own terror in it, as if my boyhood nightmares had been intercepted by psychic, subterranean war planners.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, a vital nervous tension seemed to leave the body politic. But thousands of missiles remain—each one practically fizzing and forever ready to pop, like a can of Coke in a paint shaker.
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 nonfiction rumination The Fate Of The Earth (1982), crunched the available data to outline a conjectural Soviet attack on the United States and Western Europe. Schell envisioned a Russian missile commander overseeing enough ordnance to take out every major population center, blanketing the map in “zones of universal death.” With 97 percent of his cache still left to deploy, 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 (2004), 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 Revelation for the Nuclear Freeze movement in the United States.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, a vital nervous tension seemed to leave the body politic, while Schell continued to warn that 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 equipment, essential tools 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 homemade planet-killers, even as the United States 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 in Hawaii, 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 searched out old films she’d never seen or heard of and found herself “completely stunned” by The Day After, the 1983 television feature that dramatized the results of Russian missiles raining on Middle America. Citing “the unpredictable behavior of North Korea and our current U.S. 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.”
Generations Y and 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.
I’ve got a stockpile of vintage VHS tapes and DVDs that Cassandra and her classmates could borrow while they wait for Hollywood studios to show them a thoroughly contemporary omnicide. Much of my collection dates from before my own time—to cheap, bleak sci-fi B-movies and Red Scare freakouts such as 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 (1958), Dr. Strangelove 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 to 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 memoir The Doomsday Machine: Confessions Of A Nuclear War Planner (2017), Daniel Ellsberg recalls leaving the Pentagon one afternoon in the winter of 1964 to see Dr. Strangelove. 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.” He titled his memoir after the world-ending device invented by Strangelove himself and which had its real-life counterpart in the USSR’s Perimeter defense system, also known as Dead Hand. The system was designed to set off the whole Soviet missile array, instantly and automatically, if an incoming strike was detected. (Ellsberg and others believe it is still the operative reflex-action of the present day Russian Federation.)
By the jittery late peak of the Cold War—marked by scary military maneuvers at the edge of Europe and crazy talk of Star Wars particle beams that would zap enemy warheads in Earth orbit—frosty 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, and the fall of 1983 saw a peculiar cluster of films, released like a salvo.
WarGames, The Dead Zone, and Testament all appeared in U.S. theaters through October and November of that year. Respectively, they showed: a teenage hacker almost trigger World War III by accident, with early, eerie computer graphics representing missile vectors and impact sites on the giant strategic display board at NORAD’s 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 broadcast by NBC on November 20 and drew one of the largest audience shares in television history. More than 100 million watched warheads hit home in color-filtered blasts, intercut with archival bomb-test footage. Civilians were turned to skeletons with spooky X-Ray effects, and 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.” On those terms he 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.
Looking back, it seems that those in nominal control were the slowest to pick up on the fear in the air.
In the intervening weeks, before the public broadcast of The Day After, Reagan went ahead with Able Archer 83, a real-world war game played out by NATO forces in Western Europe. The exercise proved so lifelike in simulating a Warsaw Pact attack that it almost provoked an actual hot response from the USSR. This was only a couple of months after Soviet satellites mistook an unusual array of sunlight on high-altitude clouds for five inbound U.S. missiles, a false alarm that would have led to a counter-strike if not for a skeptical lieutenant colonel named Stanislav Petrov.
Unknown to the public at the time, these events are now matters of record, recently unpacked in Peter Anthony’s documentary The Man Who Saved The World (2015) and Taylor Dowling’s book 1983: The World At The Brink (2018). According to Dowling, even Reagan didn’t realize 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. That same autumn, millions of protesters rallied with the Nuclear Freeze movement in the United States, the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament in the UK, and the unwieldy coalitions of leftist groups, green activists, and church organizations in West Germany.
The superpowers were bipolar, the fear stretching 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 (1987) 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 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. 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, 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, D.C., 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 eye-rollingly naive on the subject.
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 U.S. 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 travels in a train full of mutants across a nuked-out landscape (dreamscape).
I went in for realism, too, and paid careful attention to Countdown To Looking Glass (1984), a 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 watched these movies clammy with doom-sweat. Each one was an inoculating dose of my own dread. They made me feverish, but they strengthened my resistance.
I went on rewinding and rewatching 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, and everyone seemed to be friends. The sense of relief lasted decades, through the Boris Yeltsin years and deep into the Vladimir Putin era, even as multiple conventional conflicts created non-nuclear flashpoints, from the NATO bombing of the Balkans to the immolations of Iraq, Libya, and Syria.
Atomic time has spiraled, 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.
Millennials grew up within this historical bubble, and without the expectation of imminent death. Generations Y and 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 a new one breaking out. In early 2019, the United States and Russia withdrew from the INF treaty, each accusing the other of violations as a transparent excuse to set about rearming. I try to tell myself that those long-dormant missiles weren’t waiting to be woken by someone like Donald Trump, but I heard him calling to them from the outset of his campaign for president. It felt like a childhood illness recurring, watching that deranged town hall interview in which Trump refused to rule out deploying nukes in Europe. Or that single short briefing from a senior foreign policy advisor, whom Trump reportedly asked three times: “If we have them, why can’t we use them?” More than half way through his first term, I still don’t take for granted that he won’t. His sycophancy toward Putin, and latterly Kim Jong-Un, is not reflected in his nuclear posture. His isolationism does not preclude sending warships to Iran.
I called Rachel Bronson, 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,” she said. “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, Bronson 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 at the University of Chicago. 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 recruited 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 twenty-three 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 United States and USSR detonated their first hydrogen bombs: two minutes to midnight. Atomic time has spiraled, 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 Bronson, 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. We need new images to engage and motivate them. And film-makers have a role to play in that, like Stanley Kubrick and Nicholas Meyer did.”
It is unusual to see a movie that stares directly into the blast and reflects on what a nuclear war would really mean.
The former capitalized on the heightened mood of the period—Kubrick himself proposed marketing Dr. Strangelove as “the most exploitable film of recent times.” The latter had an almost captive audience when watching television 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. These explosions turn out to be faked, and 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. 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.” They represent 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, a professor of media analysis, at Murdoch University in Perth, one of the most isolated major cities on the planet. He literally wrote the book on atomic cinema: Nuclear Movies: A Critical Analysis And Filmography of International Feature Length Films Dealing with Experimentation, Aliens, Terrorism, Holocaust, and Other Disaster Scenarios, 1914-1990 (1991). His more recent book Reconstructing Strangelove: Inside Stanley Kubrick’s Nightmare Comedy (2017), included new evidence that Kubrick had seriously considered moving to Perth in 1962 as his best chance of escaping a nuclear holocaust. (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 Nevil 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 told me. “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 to latter-day megabudget sci-fi productions such as Blade Runner: 2049. Tracking and cataloguing on-screen warheads like a weapons inspector, he has identified other storytelling patterns, and made notes on audience preferences. They will pay, for example, 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 reverted to some ancient or medieval state of barbarism, setting a stage for primal struggle among the survivors. “These story conventions can be pretty reactionary,” said Broderick. “They often come down to the preservation of patriarchal lore and law.”
It is 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 shows the bombing of Hiroshima as a psychedelic hell on Earth. 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 couldn’t 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.”
“If we don’t recognize a kind of majesty in the geometric creation of these things . . . then we’re probably not coming to terms with them.”
So, Kubrick ended his movie, and the world, in a musical montage of mushroom clouds. He used original footage shot by U.S. Air Force cameramen in spotter planes over South Pacific atolls and Nevada proving grounds to replicate a God’s-eye view of our extinction. That perspective—aloof, rueful, ethereal—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.
“There is 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 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 mathematician-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.”
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 United States as a British answer to The Day After. The American effort, however, plays like a singalong with Elmo and some Muppet penguins by comparison. Threads was and is something else. Novelist Barry Hines wrote the screenplay with diligent reference to existing civil defense plans, consulting with doctors, physicists, psychologists, agronomists. Mick Jackson directed in a neutral, neorealist style, reusing some of the material he had used in the popular science program QED: A Guide To Armageddon (1982).
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 the escalation to conflict in the Persian Gulf, as witnessed by way of nervous glances toward television 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.
“The odds of an accident have always been so high . . . 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.”
“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, Scottish journalist Julie McDowall told me that the broadcast was one of her earliest memories. In particular she recalled the sight 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, and 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 survivable.
I share 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 because she was afraid of the sky. “I’m certain that this fear was enhanced 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.”
I asked McDowall if immersion in the subject provided any kind of protection. She said that working on the podcast, and a forthcoming book, had merely replaced her sense of terror with a feeling of hopelessness. “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.”
McDowell didn’t have much time for Miracle Mile (1989), my own favorite entry in our subgenre of choice. Released thirty years ago this spring, at the tail end of the Cold War, the low-key indie feature always seemed too romantic for her tastes, too essentially unreal in its dreamy mood and music, its late-80s neon glow. It bombed hard enough at the box office to make the obvious pun redundant, then haunted the margins on VHS and cable television, at midnight screenings and apocalyptic film festivals.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. The movie has its own version of a Doomsday Clock: an LED dot matrix readout on a Space Age sign outside Johnie’s Coffee Shop in Los Angeles. The time is 4:03 a.m. 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 fell in love with the previous afternoon.
“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.”
“It’s happening!” says a male voice. “I can’t believe it, but we’re locked in! Fifty minutes and counting!” The caller works in a missile silo in North Dakota. He misdialed in a panic while trying to reach his dad and claims that the United States 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 U.S. cities in “an hour and ten.” 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 is not just a nightmare. The rest of the film plays out in those remaining seventy minutes: Harry tries to find and save his perfect girl while spreading pandemonium through the pre-dawn streets, like Chicken Little in a loose-fitting blue suit. Spoiler alert: the sky is really falling, though it is 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.
“All those chances,” says Julie as she tries to accept that her life, and everyone else’s, is about to end. A lamentation for the whole human race 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, his moment had passed. The film was written just before Reagan came to power and called the USSR an “evil empire,” but it 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.” The movie wasn’t a complete flop, he said. It did well enough on VHS that he was owed $400,000 in residuals when production company Hemdale went bankrupt. And it became timely again in early 2018, when that false alarm at Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency briefly put islanders in the same predicament as Harry the trombonist. A few journalists came to De Jarnatt for comment, and he 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 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.”
The ending that meant everything to De Jarnatt rested on 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 essay, “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 fantasize about a more perfect Doomsday Machine that kills only the person who pushes the button—turns him to a pillar of fire, then a pile of red dust.
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. 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 will never let go of my hate for the men who wield these weapons, who act like they might use them, who barely bother to hide that they want to. I fantasize about a more perfect Doomsday Machine that kills only the person who pushes the button—turns him 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 happens—mistake or miscalculation, computer glitch or cyber-hack, some limited tactical skirmish escalating to a larger conflict or 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 one of his favorite films is Bloodsport (1988), a trashy kickboxing flick with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Kim Jong-Un grew up watching his father’s beloved collection of Bond movies. Putin is a fan and friend of the 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.
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June 11, 2019
31 Min read time