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Leaving aside the terrible human costs, the Cold War was the most cinematic of conflicts, playing out in the shadows of occupied cities and in closed-off rooms thousands of miles away. Action took place behind the scenes — until an absurdist clash played out in this or that corner of the world. Some countries fell like chess pieces; in others fighting dragged on, in a painful stasis, for years. It was a cerebral war, and a perfect setting for stark filmic landscapes of forces larger than people, marked with heroism and despair.
A small number of bleak masterpieces captured the time best; I'll get to those in a minute. But first, there's Vietnam. Here, in a remote curving coastline of a country 9,000 miles from Washington and 4,500 miles from Moscow, two nuclear superpowers funded hapless inhabitants of a Third World country in a debilitating proxy war marked by incompetence, cruelty and a creeping anomie that ultimately begat sadism and despair. It took American filmmakers a few years to deal with the issue, but by the late 1970s we'd seen “The Deer Hunter” —significantly a Best Picture winner — a grueling but sympathetic look at the psychic carnage the war had wreaked on unknowing young men from the Pennsylvania steel country.
A year later, Francis Ford Coppola's “Apocalypse Now” hit theaters. The making of the movie was a drawn-out war in its own right, and the ending remains muddled to this day, but few will deny it captured in a highly stylized way the existential toll Vietnam took on America. (No Best Picture award, though — the Academy turned to the rather less visionary ”Kramer Vs. Kramer.”) A decade later, Oliver Stone revisited his own Vietnam service in “Platoon.” The theme was the same — how an immoral war ruins the men forced to fight it — and the Academy responded with another Best Picture win.
The years of the Cold War saw Russia and the U.S. involved in a new Great Game, pressing for advantage in odd corners of the globe. None of it mattered in the big picture, but when two giants battle over a cookie in a small room, collateral damage can ensue. (The cookie generally gets destroyed as well.) No film captured the idea of how insignificant regular folks were in that game than the (literally) explosive “Kiss Me Deadly,” from 1955. A minor pulp novel of the era (written by Mickey Spillane) is turned into perhaps the ultimate absurdist confrontation between man and matter. A less apocalyptic look came in the memorable 1953 thriller “Pickup on South Street,” in which a small-time criminal picks the wrong pocket. His prize turns out to be a roll of microfilm, and he's soon in over his head. The classic noir direction is by Sam Fuller.
In the Reagan era, we saw some films with a jingoistic flair. In the taut “Hunt for Red October,” a Russian sub captain wants to defect to the U.S.; and in “Red Dawn,” bellicose screenwriter John Milius took to the director's chair to film a highly improbable but goofily enjoyable fantasy of a Soviet invasion of America.
Underlying many of these films was the threat of nuclear war between the superpowers, which of course had been a part of American life since the "duck and cover" days. Children of the 1980s remember “WarGames,” the highly enjoyable family-friendly thriller about a young computer enthusiast who stumbles into the nation's nuclear-defense bunker and learns about the "mutually assured destruction" — or MAD — strategy. In the end, even the computer agrees it's a pretty dumb approach. In the 1970 thriller “Colossus: The Forbin Project,” a pair of super computers, one Russian and one American, join forces to take over the world. And in “Fail-Safe,” we watch again as the logical implications of a nation's highly illogical nuclear-defense strategy plays out.
Once certain filmmakers began to deal with the consequences of an actual nuclear war, they couldn't put a happy face on the result. The groundbreaking film on the subject is “On the Beach,” a relatively bloodless but unrelievedly sad look at the sort of life survivors would face after a full-scale nuclear exchange. The director was Stanley Kramer, at the time a highly successful purveyor of social-conscience films. Almost a quarter-century later, in 1983, America came together to watch a made-for-TV film called “The Day After.” You couldn't call the film a no-holds-barred look at the aftermath of such a war, because the filmmakers acknowledged that they couldn't present a truly accurate rendition of the result. It would have been too bleak, they said. No matter: 100 million watched, and the broadcast caused a sensation.
And at the top of the list are a small number of works acclaimed for capturing the existential nature of this unannounced conflict that lasted for some 45 years. The novels of John Le Carré are of course renowned for their flinty look at the bleakest odd corners of the standoff; there are two terrific renditions of one of his most popular novels, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” one a BBC miniseries from 1979 with Alec Guinness as Le Carré's George Smiley, and a feature film in 2011 with Gary Oldman in the lead role. Both capture with a gimlet eye the moral decrepitude that the war created. Carol Reed, the great British director, captured a similar process in much more expressionistic fashion in his classic U.K. noir, “The Third Man,” with an unforgettable Orson Welles leading Joseph Cotton — and the viewer — into a moral cesspool in Vienna.
Another Cold War classic is “The Manchurian Candidate,” from 1962. John Frankenheimer, a master of politically themed films, directed the movie in striking black and white. The story — which involved the brainwashing of an American soldier — played on our paranoia about Communist plots. The film was also strikingly prophetic, involving as it did a disturbed assassin only slightly removed from the circumstances that would kill John F. Kennedy a year after the film's release. Frankenheimer's riveting direction captured the off-kilter world we were living in — and brought the film to a thrilling conclusion.
But of course the greatest Cold War film of them all captured the absurdities of the conflict better than anyone else. It, too, was in black and white, the better to lay out the incompatible worldviews of the opponents. It was, as unlikely as it may seem, a comedy, with one man playing three roles – a worried British commander, a harried U.S. president and a maniacal political adviser.
I'm referring, of course, to the work of the brilliant Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick's highly disturbing 1964 Cold War classic, “Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” The film's lancing humor (including the unforgettable line, "Gentlemen! You can't fight in here — this is the War Room!") disguises what's really going on: Three stories of bumbling, misdirected humanity, coming together to produce what was once the unthinkable.
Bill Wyman, an Al Jazeera cultural critic, is the former arts editor of Salon.com and National Public Radio.