I'm Nevets: Nerd, cinephile, TV-junkie, bookworm, gamer, and slacker extraordinaire.
Today, we're going to take a look at some of the greatest movies ever made about one of the most important (and terrifying) topics in human history. These are films dealing with humanity's ever-impending danger from nuclear war, faulty nuclear reactors, and all-out nuclear destruction.
While most of these are fictionalized cautionary tales and horrifying post-apocalyptic "what if" scenarios, I've also included several documentaries and biographical films depicting and explaining real-life events as the disaster at Chernobyl, the construction of the A-bomb, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and atomic era propaganda.
While I've attempted to sort these in order of quality/relevance, in the end, the order of the list felt less important than the list as a whole. Many of these films aren't just entertaining (and scarier than most horror films), They're important and educational stories that bring awareness to an oft-forgotten threat that humanity has been living under since the mid-1940s.
20. Fat Man and Little Boy (1989)/Day One (1989)
Admittedly, I'm cheating a bit on this entry, as I've included two movies from the same year (and a bonus documentary) that happen to cover the same historical topic: The Manhattan Project. While the first movie isn't too great, it nevertheless compliments the second, better movie fairly well. And the documentary wraps things up all in a neat bow.
The first film is Fat Man and Little Boy (named after the nukes dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima). It stars Paul Newman and John Cusack as the Manhattan Projects leaders, General Leslie Groves and Robert Oppenheimer. In 1942, Groves recruited Oppenheimer and a large group of some of the most brilliant scientists of the time and whisked them and their families off to a dusty and deserted area in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where a quickly-tossed-together town was built for them to live until the development of the bomb (or "the gadget", as it was then called) was completed. And that little town is where the majority of this film takes place.
Sadly, while the topic is an interesting one and the actors are top-notch, the movie felt unfocused. And these extremely interesting real-life people felt strangely one-dimensional due to how the film portrayed them. Which brings us to the much better, lesser-known TV movie from the same year, entitled Day One, which, again, follows the lives of General Groves (this time played by Brian Dennehy) and Oppenheimer (David Strathairn) during the same time period.
Whereas Fat Man and Little Boy primarily focuses on Hollywood's watered-down, somewhat hammy take on these people and events, Day One, appropriately, took a more scientific approach. Following the bomb from its very conception by Leo Szilard and his first attempts to get the government to take notice of the idea, and then on to the political and moral dilemmas between politicians and scientists as they attempt to decide whether they should pursue even making such a destructive weapon at all. We get the New Mexico portion tossed into the mix, as well, so we're really getting the best of both worlds with this much more informative interpretation of this fascinating period in world history.
Incidentally, by the way, Christopher Nolan is currently working on yet another film covering this topic as I type this. So, perhaps, in the future, we'll update this list to include that, as well.
BONUS: The Day After Trinity (1980)
If the above two Manhattan Project movies aren't dark and foreboding enough for you, and you want something you can really sink your teeth into, the 1980 documentary on J. Robert Oppenheimer, entitled The Day After Trinity, may be more up your alley.
This movie follows the life of the theoretical physicist from his early childhood up until his security clearance (and direct political influence) was revoked in the mid-1950s, after his accusal of having communist ties. The biggest talking point in this film, however, is (obviously) the Manhattan Project, where Oppenheimer was in charge of the research and development of the first atom bombs.
This in-depth look at Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project includes tons of fascinating archival footage from New Mexico during the time, interviews with actual scientists involved in the project, and old interviews with the likes of Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves themselves.
19. The War Game (1965)
Complete with classic announcer guy voice narration, dramatizations, and interviews with men and women on the street, this 1965, Academy Award winning 45-minute long BBC mockumentary is shot in the style of many of those old propaganda films, instructional films, and newsreel documentaries that you'd see back in the day. Only instead of teaching us wholesome life lessons, this one's teaching us what is expected to happen in the event of a thermonuclear war, including all of the known scientific health and economic dangers, and the list of current protocols that the British government currently has in place. In a sense, this is like the realistic version of all of those propaganda films that told students to hide under a desk in the event of an explosion from our friend the nuke (see the later listed Atomic Cafe for more on that).
While it was originally intended to be broadcast on the BBC on August 6, 1965 (the 20-year anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing), the airing was initially canceled due to the producers’ opinion that:
“The effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting."
(If that doesn't make you want to see this thing, I don't know what will.)
Due to this, it instead got theatrical screenings and subsequently won the 1965 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. And was finally allowed to air on the BBC 20 years later.
Due to its short length and concise, informative nature, I'd definitely pick this little movie as the appetizer to watch before the likes of such films as The Day After, Threads, and Testament, which we'll delve more into later on in this list.
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18. Miracle Mile (1988)
You know those first scenes in every zombie movie you've ever seen? The ones right before anyone is completely sure of what's going on and when society first begins to devolve into a riotous, murderous, cesspool of chaos? Well, Miracle Mile is basically 88 minutes of that. Only instead of zombies being the catalyst, it's news of a nuclear war.
Black Mirror creator, Charlie Brooker, has actually cited this movie as having the biggest "lurch in tone" that he'd ever seen. Beginning as what looks like a quirky rom-com, things take a turn for the dramatic when our nerdy protagonist answers a soldier's wrong number and learns that nuclear war has broken out, with Soviet missiles due to hit the city in 70 minutes. From that point onward, things get progressively darker, culminating in tar pit black at the end.
While critics at the time apparently loved this movie, it wasn't perfect. For my taste, for instance, the acting was a bit over-the-top and some of the situations really pushed the limits of suspension of disbelief. Take, for instance, the moment after our aforementioned nerd gets the foreboding phone call. Afterward, he freaks out, heads to a diner, and relates the story to everyone inside. And they just instantly believe him?
I don't know. Maybe things were just different in the 80s. It was before my time. There were several little things like that, however, scattered throughout the film that I, personally, had a lot of trouble swallowing. But if you're capable of looking past that, it's actually a pretty entertaining movie. Kinda like Scorsese's After Hours meets Deep Impact (if it were directed by Mick Garris and made on a shoestring budget).
17. One Night Stand (1984)
Truth be told, I almost skipped out on this one based purely on its cutesy-looking cover (two couples comically standing side-by-side holding umbrellas, with a firey mushroom cloud in the background). I gave it a shot anyway, though, and, it turns out I'm happy I did. It actually wasn't half bad.
It's a 1984 Australian movie about two flirty girls, a Stifler-esque blockhead, and an AWOL American soldier who all find themselves trapped in the Sydney Opera House on New Year's Eve when, suddenly, nuclear war starts. As the four wait things out, they play strip poker, drink, flirt, and get to know each other a little better. Somewhere near the last act, though, things take an interesting turn for the dramatic as the nuclear crisis escalates. And this happy-go-lucky chick flick gets a big, radiated dose of reality.
Tonally (not too dissimilar from Miracle Mile), some may call this movie a mess (sort of like if The Breakfast Club were to abruptly end in a school shooting). I, on the other hand, appreciated the odd juxtaposition. Something about the unexpectedness of it spoke more true to me than some of the more consistently dramatic disaster films I've seen. In real life, after all, there's no ominous music before tragedy strikes. The unimaginable typically remains unimaginable up until the very end.
16. Dead Man's Letters (1986)
If you're looking for a more artsy and cerebral take on the nuclear apocalypse, this one might be for you. It's a dark and gloomy (and mostly sepia-colored) film, produced by the Soviet Union in 1986, that takes place after an accidental nuclear missile launch destroys a town and pumps it full of radiation. Society is essentially ruined, resulting in plenty of scenes of people dawning gas masks and radiation suits as they trudge through a wasteland to get from one bunker to another.
The title is derived from the main character of the film, a Professor who ruminates on the situation in the form of poetic narration by composing mental letters to his missing (likely dead) son.
While the movie was a product from the other side of the iron curtain, it's delivered with more or less the same tone and messaging as the other films on this list: i.e., nuclear war is bad... let's avoid that. As visually depressing and full of tragedy as it is, however, it's actually got a surprisingly more hopeful and optimistic vibe to it than a lot of the other entries on this list. Particularly in its praising of humanity (due to our ability to survive, love, and create) rather than its condemnation of us and all the self-destructive qualities we possess.
15. The Atomic Cafe (1982)
Consisting of only edited-together preexisting footage from newsreels, TV news, man on the street interviews, radio broadcasts, advertisements, government-produced movies, and a boatload of propaganda from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, The Atomic Cafe nevertheless manages to be one of the most informative, darkly hilarious, and thought-provoking films on nuclear weapons ever made. And an eerie look into how, sometimes, reality can be far more bizarre than any fiction ever conceived.
Footage includes clips of soldiers walking directly toward the mushroom cloud of a recently tested atomic bomb; soldiers telling the happy citizens of Bikini Atoll that they were going to be testing nukes out in their area (as the citizens cheerfully sing "You Are My Sunshine", completely unaware that radiation will prevent them from ever returning home again); we hear an excited young pilot declare how dropping the bomb on Nagasaki was the "greatest thrill" of his life; and, of course, we take a gander at the widely distributed propaganda fed to the public about how important nuclear weapons are and how we have nothing to fear from our friend the atom (in the event of an explosion, for instance, simply "duck and cover" and you'll be fine... just like Bert the Turtle).
The most horrifying thing about this mostly government-produced footage was the fact that it was ever seen as a necessity to produce in the first place. The fact that the guys in charge thought it prudent to teach kids the futile procedures for hiding from nuclear explosions, or telling families how to stock their bomb shelters, or trying to convince us all that radiation isn't really all that dangerous, comes with the bone-chilling implication that we were far closer to nuclear annihilation than we could ever imagine. And perhaps we still are today.
14. On the Beach (1959)
In the not too distant future of 1964, after a nuclear war has destroyed most of humanity, the last people left alive wait in Australia for the radiation to finally come and finish them off. That's the gist of this 1959 movie staring Greggory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins.
Deviating from the usual script (at least from the movies on this list), the nukes have already long since gone off by the time this story gets rolling. And with all the food and drink they could want, none of the handful of survivors is struggling to survive either. Their struggle is one of a more emotional nature. They're struggling to accept the inevitable. Their future has already been written and they know it: Once the radiation hits Australia, they're goners. And what remains of the human species is going right along with them.
This is a very talky movie with no real action to speak of. We know from the get-go that humanity is destined for extinction, so all we're seeing play out is how this group of people handle that knowledge. Some resort to suicide, some mourn, some try to fulfill their dreams, and some try to find love. Above all else, however, they're each forced to appreciate the value of life.
What would you do today if you knew the world would to end tomorrow?
13. White Light/Black Rain (2007)
This documentary about the real-life people involved in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings of 1945 gives us a taste of the actual effects of the bomb on the only people alive who've experienced it.
Visually, the film features a lot of jarring archived footage from not long after the bombs dropped that'll make your stomachs turn and your jaws drop. We see children and adults who've suffered the likes of lost limbs, skin, and eyeballs, for instance. We listen to these people tell their stories about what they thought when they saw the planes above, what it was like when the white light engulfed them, how impact made them fly from the air, the losses they experienced, and how they managed to survive the poverty and famine that followed. Many of them continue to suffer from radiation sickness to this day and have ongoing fears that their children and grandchildren will fall victim to their damaged genes.
While we all may think we know how terrible the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, it's a whole different experience seeing the actual victims up close, telling their stories. In that sense, White Light/Black Rain isn't just a movie, it's an important historical document that everyone should see.
12. Trinity and Beyond (1995)
Narrated by William Shatner, using tons of recently declassified footage, and brimming with dramatic flair, Trinity and Beyond may very well be my favorite documentary on nuclear war (at least as far as pure information goes). As the title implies, it documents the periods between the first Trinity nuclear bomb tests in 1945 up until the first Chinese atomic bomb tests in 1964.
Unlike the aforementioned satirical documentary, The Atomic Cafe, which required the viewer to have a little bit of foreknowledge in order to get the joke, Trinity and Beyond is more of a straightforward, informative documentary that anyone can jump into, learn from, and enjoy. And it's a great starting point for anyone interested in learning about our species' history with nuclear weapons.
11. Countdown to Looking Glass (1984)
While Countdown to Looking Glass isn't very well known, this 1984 made-for-TV movie about the days counting down until all-out nuclear war is probably one of the more unique films on our list. Unlike the usual countdown-till-disaster movies, which are conveyed through the eyes of the everyday civilians, military figures, or the politicians involved, this film, instead, plays out the escalating national conflicts like a series of breaking news reports. Almost like a feature-length version of all those news reports you see characters briefly glance at on the rest of our entries.
And aside from just a small handful of cringe-inducing narrative of scenes, about 95% of the movie's story is all conveyed via a news anchor's desk. It's here where we watch continuous new developments, cut to on-the-scene reporters, and watch interviews with actual public figures such as Newt Gingrich and Eugene McCarthy (who actually play themselves). The end result comes off so authentic feeling that, if you didn't know any better, you'd actually think this was all from real news broadcasts in the 1980s.
Just one year before Countdown to Looking Glass was released, there was yet another made-for-TV film entitled, Special Bulletin, that was also shot as a film-long newscast. Its plot, however, rather than being about the nuclear standoff between nations, revolves around an anti-nuke terrorist group who (ironically) threaten South Carolina with a homemade nuclear bomb if American doesn't agree to disarm their nuclear weapons.
10. Ladybug, Ladybug (1963)
Back in the Cold War era, ducking and hiding under desks weren't school's only means of protection against nuclear strikes. Many also had alarm systems set up that could alert the schools when a blast was on its way.
On at least one real-life occasion, in a small California school in 1962, this system failed, resulting in a false alarm. Since nuclear war was a very real possibility at that time, on the forefront of everyone's minds, panic instantly ensued. The principal alerted the teachers who proceeded to send the students home; everyone thinking that their lives may end within the hour. The 1963 film, Ladybug, Ladybug was inspired by this event. Mind you, however, there's a difference between "inspired by" and "based on". Whether or not the alarm in the film is real remains a mystery till the end.
While we see events through the eyes of a couple of teachers here and there, most of the movie is shown from the various perspectives of the children involved, and the interesting ways that they view the war, the bomb, and the possible end to their lives.
While I won't spoil what happens, I will tell you that they really nailed it with the ending on this one.
9. The China Syndrome (1979)
Starring Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, and the great Jack Lemmon, The China Syndrome is about a nuclear power plant that has "an accident".
The accident in question is based on an actual incident that happened at the Dresden plant, outside of Chicago, in 1970, in which a stuck needle on a graph caused engineers to misread a crucial water level (ironically, a similar accident happened at the Three Mile Island power plant while this movie was still in theaters). Just like in real life, no real damage was caused by the accident itself. In the film, as well, it was soon caught and resolved. But the incident leads one worker (Jack Lemmon) to take notice of other faults in the plant. Faults that were caused by the company's attempts to cut corners and save money in the construction and maintenance of the plant (incidentally, this is one of the downfalls that lead to the Chernobyl disaster, 7 years after the release of this film). Cue a thrilling, conspiratorial web, in which one moral man tries to spread the truth, while Big Nuke tries to shut him up.
The question is obviously raised about how safe these types of real-life facilities are when not managed correctly and if their benefits outweigh their risks. But the best parts of The China Syndrome aren't political, though. It's also chock-full of suspense, intrigue, and one of Jack Lemmon's best ever onscreen performances.
8. Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Stanley Kubrick's classic Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb (whew, that's a mouthful) is a more satirical take on nuclear war. And it's one of the few comedies in existence that fit the bill for this list.
It starts out with a general who's lost his grip on sanity and sets events into motion for a nuke to be dropped on Russia (by a small group of pilots portrayed by such actors as Slim Pickens and an extremely young James Earl Jones). Afterward, in the Pentagon's war room, an ensemble of kooky government officials (including Peter Sellers, who plays both the US president and his wheelchair-bound ex-Nazi science advisor) desperately scramble to dig themselves out of this mess before the whole world goes kablooey.
It's a very funny take on a very grim subject. And it posits a very important question: Are our governments really competent enough to have access to weapons this dangerous?
7. Fail Safe (1964)
If you've ever been watching Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb and thought to yourself, "Boy, this is great, but I'd sure love to see what a more serious take on this story would look like", well, look no führer—err, further.
Released the same year as that Stanley Kubrick classic, the very similar film, Fail Safe, went on to go fairly unnoticed during its initial release (despite being praised by critics) and almost entirely forgotten throughout the decades since. This was partly thanks to Kubrick himself who actively sought to delay the picture's release (so that his movie could come out first) by suing its creators over plagiarism.
Despite how little it's remembered, though, this very serious movie about the government's accidental stumble into nuclear war is nevertheless one that shouldn't be missed. Starring Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman, and directed by Sidney Lumet, you shouldn't have to ask why.
Whether or not plagiarism was actually involved, I have no idea. Although there are some striking similarities that are difficult to ignore. Unlike Strangelove's idea that a General gone mad causes the inadvertent deployment of a nuclear weapon, though, Fail Safe posits that a technological error is the catalyst. In either case, the results aren't good. And the message remains the same.
6. Barefoot Gen (1983)
This animated film based on the semi-autobiographical comics by Hiroshima bombing survivor, Keiji Nakazawa (who's featured in the previous film about Hiroshima survivors, White Light/Black Rain), follows a child named Gen during the days directly before the bombings of Hiroshima, to the dropping of the bomb, and for several weeks after.
Much like several of the live-action nuclear bomb movies on this list, this film deals heavily with how nuclear weapons can affect the lives of innocent civilians and how, even after the bomb, the radiation, famine, and loss of civilized society can continue to wreak havoc for a long time after. Unlike its live-action counterparts, however, the Hiroshima bombings actually occurred. And these stories were inspired by actual events.
Don't be fooled by the animated nature of Barefoot Gen I (if you're typically not into such things). This isn't a kid's movie. During the explosion sequence alone, we're witness to some of the most gruesome scenes you'll find out of any movie we've talked about today; including depictions of melting families, people's eyeballs falling out of their sockets, and a disturbing amount of dead babies. Suffice it to say, it's not an easy watch. But it is an important one.
5. The Day After (1983)
The Day After was a 1983 made-for-TV movie taking place in Kansas after a nuclear exchange between Russia and the US. Its cast includes John Lithgow, Jason Robards, and Steve Guttenberg, but there's no true "star" being focused on. Instead, we follow the lives of multiple likable characters as they each live their lives before the bombs go off, while the bombs are going off, and how they struggle to survive (or come to terms with death) after those bombs have done their damage.
The movie is the bleak "what if?" example of how things may truly be if a nuclear blast were to ever actually happen in America. In it, we get what's perhaps the media's first example of what a nuclear EMP would be like (when everyone's cars and electronics instantly shut down after the explosion), how all contact is lost with the outside world (leaving everyone not only sick, homeless, and without food, but without any way to know what's going on or if help is coming), how desperation turns to anarchy, and how radiation begins to slowly eat away at all those left alive.
Who started the war, what politics were going on behind the scenes, or even whether or not the rest of the country (outside of Kansas) is still functioning isn't ever fully addressed. Nor is it relevant. What matters here is the aftermath of the bomb and the regular people affected by it.
While "TV movie" is written all over this sucker in terms of special effects and dialogue, it's actually a very moving and thought-provoking film that forces us to look at the grim realities of nuclear bombs and their fallout. It was so impactful at the time that then-president Ronald Reagan stated that it changed his mind on the prevailing policy on nuclear war. And, after it aired, ABC aired a live Viewpoint discussion with a panel that included such heavy hitters as Carl Sagan, William F. Buckley Jr., and Henry Kissinger (you can find the full discussion on YouTube by clicking here).
4. Chernobyl (2019)
While technically more of a series than a movie, the 2019 HBO miniseries Chernobyl was just too good to neglect here.
As the title suggests, the series focuses on the infamous Chernobyl disaster of 1986 and the events which followed it. While we get a large ensemble cast with many stories involving various politicians, affected civilians, and scientists involved in the disaster, our main protagonists are Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), the lead scientist working to control the disaster, and Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard), a Soviet politician representing the interests of the Soviet government during the disaster. The series tackles the frontline chaos of the situation, the cover-ups behind closed doors, and the many civilians and animals who suffered as a consequence.
Like most HBO historical dramas, the series wasn't just highly-acclaimed but also highly meticulous and informative in its historical accuracy. It tells the story of the forgotten heroes of the event, as well, from the miners, the scientists, nurses, and politicians who risked their lives (and sometimes gave their lives) for others.
3. When the Wind Blows (1986)
If you thought the beginning of Pixar's Up (2009) was depressing, be ready to curl up into a fetal position after this animated film about an elderly British couple who become unwitting casualties of a nuclear war.
The film starts out with a deceptively cute and cuddly tone, showing us the quiet, simple life of the couple, James and Hilda, who are living peacefully in their country home. Their days are spent at home, James retired and Hilda usually preoccupied with cooking and housekeeping. Their only real worries being whether to have sausages or beefburgers for supper. In the peripheral of their awareness, though, they're also receiving news reports about the conflicts between nations and the possibility of nuclear war. James and Hilda don't quite comprehend the significance of any of this, though. Half the time they forget that the enemy is Russia and not Hitler this time around. Whoever it is, they trust that the government will take care of matters.
The saddest part about all of this is how hopeful and naïve James and Hilda are. They still look at WWII through rose-colored glasses, having never actually experienced the true horrors firsthand. "It was nice in the war, really," they say at one point, remembering the cutely decorated shelters they'd played in as kids. The possibility of civilization turning to rubble is unfathomable. They haven't the slightest understanding of the difference between a grenade or a nuclear bomb, let alone what radiation is. They're just regular folks trying to live their lives, with no skin in the game when it comes to the conflicts between nations.