Movies to Help Donald Trump Understand Nuclear War
Essential viewing for the American president
U.S. president Ronald Reagan sat down to watch a movie on Oct. 10, 1983 and he didn’t much for care for what he saw. “I ran the tape of the movie ABC is running on the air on Nov. 20,” Reagan wrote in his diary that day.
“It’s called The Day After. It has Lawrence, Kansas wiped out in a nuclear war with Russia. It is powerfully done … very effective & left me greatly depressed … whether it will be of help to the anti-nukes or not, I can’t say. My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent & to see there is never a nuclear war.”
According to biographer Edmund Morris, the movie was still darkening Reagan’s mood four days later. The made-for-T.V. flick about a nuclear war with the Russians focused on a small community in the middle of America and depicted what might happen to innocent families caught in the crossfire between apocalyptic superpowers.
Four years after the film’s release, Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which called for the elimination of both country’s mid-range nuclear weapons. In the coming decades, both sides would dismantle more than 2,500 nuclear weapons.
In Morris’ Reagan biography, he claimed The Day After pushed the president to chase after the treaty. Its horrific images were that powerful. Art has the power to move people and change minds, even the minds of the most powerful people on the planet.
In early August 2017, U.S. president Donald Trump began a game of rhetorical brinksmanship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. North Korea had miniaturized a nuclear device, a critical step toward manufacturing a functional ICBM capable of hitting the United States.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump said. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
“Maybe it wasn’t tough enough,” Trump said days later when asked to clarify his original statement.
Then on Aug. 11, Trump tweeted more incendiary threats. “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!”
North Korea isn’t helping the situation. Kim and the DPRK’s rhetoric has been just as brash and obnoxious as Trump’s is. “It is a tragedy that the reckless and hysteric behaviors may reduce the U.S. mainland to ashes [at] any moment,” the Kim regime stated on Aug. 11.
The world watches in horror as these two leaders trade insults like middle-schoolers on social media. Both should take a lesson from Reagan and sit down and watch a few entertaining movies about the consequences of nuclear weapons. Maybe if Trump watched The Day After or one of the other movies below, he would have second thoughts about provoking nuclear war.
The first strike. ABC capture via YouTube
The Day After
The first choice is also the most obvious. This classic aired on ABC in November 1983 and terrified 100 million viewers. To put that in perspective, the most-watched episode of Game of Thrones pulled in around 10 million viewers. More than half of America tuned in to watch The Day After.
The story follows a community in Lawrence, Kansas dealing with the fallout of nuclear war. It eschews geopolitics to show the devastation these weapons wreak on the people with the bad luck to survive the first strike. Steve Guttenberg slowly rots as radiation poisons his flesh. Jason Robards wanders through the ashen wasteland, searching for the desiccated bodies of his family.
ABC refused to air the original cut of The Day After. The movie’s creators spent months fighting with the company. ABC fired some people, an editor quit and eventually the two parties settled on a two-hour cut. The company setup call-in lines to deal with addled viewers stressed by what they’d seen. Carl Sagan and Henry Kissinger discussed nuclear war with William F. Buckley in front of a live audience.
The Day After should be at the top of Trump’s viewing list. Hell, he can even stream it on YouTube for free. But it’s nothing compared to the kinds of movies Britain was making.
Life in the aftermath. BBC capture
A year after ABC released The Day After, the BBC unleashed Threads on the world. Like its American predecessor, Threads depicts life on the ground for normal people in the aftermath of a nuclear war. Unlike The Day After, it doesn’t pull any punches. This movie is hard to watch.
In the movie, the U.S. and the Soviet Union come to nuclear blows over Iran. The American military backs a pro-Shah coup d’état and the Soviets occupy the northern part of the country to prevent an expansion of U.S. influence in the region. After a few days of fighting, the Soviets defend one of their bases with nuclear-tipped surface-to-air missiles and atomic Hell breaks loose.
Within days, the law enforcement and military infrastructure turns on the civilian population. People scrounge for food, form tribes, melt in the radiation and turn on each other. The final scene flashes forward 13 years, where one of the movie’s young characters is giving birth in an irradiated feudal nightmare world.
As with The Day After, panel shows used Threads as a talking point. In America, Ted Turner aired it on TBS and introduced it personally. “Doomsday scenarios need not to be proven,” Turned said. “The existence of the risk is enough. The worst only need happen once.”
The BBC aired Threads again in 1985 in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The same day, it also aired a faux-documentary it had produced in the 1960s then suppressed for 20 years. It was the first and only time the BBC ever aired the fake documentary, so shocking did the broadcasters find its contents.
The dead of a quiet British town. BBC capture
The War Game
Peter Watkins is a brilliant British director who makes movies about war, all in a documentary style. The most famous is probably Culloden, where Watkins recreated the epic 1745 battle in Scotland then wandered around the scenes of destruction and filmed the whole thing as if he were a war correspondent. That was in 1964.
In Watkin’s 1966 The War Game, a small village in Kent deals with the fallout of a nuclear war started by events in Indochina and East Berlin. It’s in black and white. A dry British voice narrates the horrors.
“In this car a family is burning alive,” the voice says over footage of a British cop using a sledgehammer to break open the steel coffin. Watkins pulls the camera back and lets the narrator deliver the large-scale explanation of shock waves and fiery explosions. Then pushes the camera in for tight close-ups of men and women blinded in the initial blast.
It’s easily the most powerful film about nuclear war ever made — and it’s 50 years old. The BBC refused to air it until 1985. The War Game won the Oscar for best documentary in 1967 despite being unreleased at that point.
For years, The War Game was impossible to find. Bootleg DVDs floated around and it’d pop up on YouTube sometimes. But now it’s on Netflix, where anyone can spend 50 minutes seeing the possible consequences of nuclear war.
Even the president of the United States. Especially the president of the United States.