The Soviet Union crumbled in the late 1980s, as Soviet republics declared independence and the Berlin Wall came down. Russia, the largest of the republics, is classified as a democracy. Okay, I guess so. Today we’re on friendly terms with Russia, but there are obvious tensions and in some ways the Cold War lives on. One good thing about the Cold War, it was easy to the good guys from the bad guys, or at least knew who was on what side. It is much more complicated today.
During the heyday of the Cold War, many films used this as a backdrop for some great dramas, action and even a few comedies. Here are ten that I recommend, plus a few that narrowly missed the list.
The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966) – A Russian submarine runs aground off of Cape Cod in the early 1960s. A landing party searches for something to help free their vessel, while summer tourists and town people meet up with the Russians. Comedy ensues. As the town people figure out what’s going on and how to repel the invaders, an emergency rescue of a child unites the town and the unwelcome visitors. Beneath the armament and politics, there are kindred spirits, and a little romance. The film harkens back to simpler times and clearer interests.
Dr. Strangelove (1964) – Another comedy with a purpose. Stanley Kubrick’s view of a plan to go “toe to toe with the Ruskies in nuclear combat,” as Slim Pickens’ Major Kong is happy to admit. He, and other bomber crews have been given a go code to fly to their Russian targets and drop their loads. It’s all a mistake of course, a launch has been ordered by crazy General Ripper who is convinced the Russians have been using fluoridation to gain control of Americans, and their bodily functions. This is a nasty and outrageous film that takes you to the brink of hilarity. That should have been used in the promotion. The film is actually quite biting and funny with Peter Sellers in three glorious roles.
The Package (1989) – The threat of a disarmament agreement mobilizes both American and Soviet generals to take matters into their own hands to stop the agreement by undertaking a political assassination designed to keep the Cold War as it is. Along comes Army Master Sergeant Gene Hackman who somehow drops into the middle of the plot without knowing what he’s submerged in. This is a smart, finely layered thriller, with tremendous performances. The best political thrillers are believable and make you wonder if it could be actually happening under our very noses.
The Fourth Protocol (1987) – Based on a Frederick Forsyth novel, Forsyth and Michael Caine teamed up to make it into a film. A Soviet general decides to violate one of the protocols of nuclear agreements between the East and West. A Soviet agent is sent to England to receive and construct a nuclear device, which will be detonated near a NATO base in what would appear to be a NATO “accident.” Michael Caine stumbles onto the case as a member of MI5. Both Soviet and English interests work to stop the detonation. Forsyth writes very realistic novels, well researched and bristling with suspense. This film has been out of circulation for many years but it is possible to find DVD copies manufactured in other countries. Caine gives a measured but very effective performance as he unravels the plot.
From Russia With Love (1963) – The Russians were always in the background of Bond films, but were more central in the original stories by Ian Fleming. This film is the most Cold War themed of the Bond films of the Cold War era. Battles with Russians appear in other films but in this one, Bond must battle SPECTRE and the Russians. The most straight-forward spy-oriented of the early Bond films, it is different from Dr. No and Goldfinger, and odd appearing between them.
The Hunt For Red October (1990) – Tom Clancy specialized in Cold War stories and his go-to-guy was CIA analyst Jack Ryan. The first of the Ryan stories to make it to the screen, it is probably the best. A top-notch thriller. A rogue Soviet submarine captain plans to defect and take a modern submarine with him. As a submarine film it has realism and is suspenseful. Rarely do you see a chase film involving submarines. A large-scale production with a fine cast.
Thirteen Days (2000) – The number of days inside the Cuban Missile Crisis. The film unfolds slowly and the story is allowed to breathe, there is no ramped-up, manipulated suspense. The focus is on telling a compelling story and allowing the actors to take center stage. The action is effectively in the background. The cast is tremendously talented and allowed to work. The film was criticized for having the central character be Ken O’Donnell, an assistant to Kennedy but not a key figure in the crisis. O’Donnell was a device by the filmmakers to create a character for Kevin Costner to play to streamline the storytelling. That aside, the film is very entertaining and an effective history lesson.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – A political thriller involving brainwashing, assassination and the Cold War. Released after the Cuban Missile Crisis, it had the unfortunate timing playing at the time of the Kennedy assassination, so producer Frank Sinatra shelved the film and it stayed buried for years. A masterful film, sordid and appropriately controversial. At times it veers close to satire, its diabolical characters nearly going over the top, but it is squarely a thriller. A less effective and unnecessary remake was made in 2004. Experience the original.
Fail Safe (1964)– Dr. Strangelove plowed the same territory, an accidental alert sends a wave of American bombers toward Soviet targets. This is a taut, dramatic version, pulsating with fear and twisted idealism. Henry Fonda plays the President and Larry Hagman his Russian translator in one of the best scenes in the film. A false alert mobilizes American nuclear forces but an attempt to recall one bomber. In an effort to avoid a complete thermonuclear war, he must make the ultimate decision that has a dire result.
Charlie Wilson’s War (1965) – Indirectly fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, Congressman Charlie Wilson is able to fund a large covert operation, supplying weapons and resources to groups fighting the Soviet invasion, with help from the CIA and other nations to distribute arms through their networks. Directed by Mike Nichols and written by Aaron Sorkin from the book by George Crile III, the film had a stellar cast, and great production values. Sadly, the film ends with the U.S. turning its back on Afghanistan after the Soviet retreat. We know what happened after that. The film is so breezy and stylish that you almost take it for a lightweight piece of pop history instead of the history lesson it deserves to be.
Honorable Mention: Seven Days in May, Ice Station Zebra, The Third Man, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Matinee.
Cold War films had a distinct advantage, fear, paranoia and the end of the world. Spies, double crosses, foreign intrigue, cloak and dagger were elements used to ratchet the tension and table stakes. The Cold War gave us obvious enemies, communists and particularly the Soviet Union and China. The good guys were the Americans and usually our allies, the black hats the Russians, Chinese, Cubans, East Germans and other communist countries. These films usually had a race to dismantle a bomb, call back errant airplanes, uncover a conspiracy or de-escalate a potential world war. Very high stakes indeed, but at the end of two hours we usually left the theaters feeling all right. Usually.