FILM: Nuclear Madness and The Cold War Revival

FILM: Nuclear Madness and The Cold War Revival


By Tench Phillips, Naro Cinema

As a young boy growing up in Norfolk in the early 1960s, I had a vivid and expansive imagination. But for a time my dreamworld was drained of color and my dreamscape turned into a bleak, black and white world. I had recently watched the film ‘On The Beach’ at a local theater. The experience was much more frightening than my usual diet of low-budget horror films that I relished seeing on Saturday mornings at such Norfolk theaters as the Willard, Newport, Park, and Boulevard. These old, single-screen movie houses were my favorite haunts growing up. We escaped from the adults, and joined a rowdy audience of screaming, popcorn-throwing kids.

Many of the noir and horror films of that era were produced in black and white. Think Hitchcock’s Psycho or The Birds. And television was still in the realm of black and white during the early sixties before the advent of color. But neither scary movies nor The Twilight Zone’ had affected me as deeply as On The Beach. The frighteningly realistic specter of loss, sadness, and grief had stuck in my subconscious.

The film is set in Australia, the last remaining part of the world still untouched by deadly radiation from a thermonuclear war that has killed off life in the northern hemisphere. Gregory Peck plays the captain of the nuclear-powered submarine U.S.S. Sawfish that had been submerged for months during the apocalypse and has sought safe harbor in Melbourne. Peck’s character is still in denial and clings to the hope that his wife and family could still be alive back in the states.

Filmmaker Stanley Kramer treats the topic as a psychological drama and not as a disaster movie. There are no scenes in the film that show piled-up corpses or for that matter, the walking dead. The inhabitants at “the end of the world” are played by a stellar cast that includes Ava Gardner, Tony Perkins, and Fred Astaire in a rare dramatic role. Each of them must go through an all-too-realistic portrayal of the five Kubler-Ross phases of grief: first denial, then anger, followed by bargaining, depression, and finally, resignation and acceptance.

The relationship that develops between Ava Gardner’s character and Gregory Peck’s character in Melbourne is compassionate and courageous even as they confront the dark shadow of imminent death. As one reviewer put it, “The primary power of this movie is how well it conveys the idea that for us, on this beach, love and kindness are all that matter in the end. And the end is always near.”

I was devastated by the grave message of the movie. I had become aware that the adult world was no longer secure or trustworthy. Our leaders were all beholden to a mad dystopian worldview. It vilified the communist movement wherever the ‘red menace’ lurked–within labor unions, among artists, and jazz musicians. Our parents and teachers seemed to follow their propaganda blindly.

Real-life events soon overtook my own furtive imagination. In October of 1962, the Cuban missile crisis was a 13-day political and military standoff over the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles on Castro’s Cuba. President Kennedy went on national television to deliver a sobering talk that resonates to this day. Only many years later did retired Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara reveal just how close the world had been to nuclear annihilation.

At that time I was attending Azalea Gardens Junior High. On a few occasions we were ordered to perform drills to prepare us for a possible nuclear attack. As I remember we were instructed in the exercise of ‘duck and cover’ as well as taken outdoors to the playgrounds and made to stand in single-file line for some amount of time. No teacher could provide us with a rationale for the practice. And as the warning sirens blared ominously overhead, I realized the irrational absurdity of adults who just follow orders.

Over the following decades, the nuclear arms race resulted in the deployment of tens of thousands of weapons. It was all rationalized by the strategy of MAD or Mutually Assured Destruction. But worldwide protests for peace forced governments to create an international regulatory framework. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was signed in 1970 and now includes 191 countries. The only rogue nations that won’t sign the pact are India, Pakistan, Southern Sudan, and Israel.

Since 2000, the U.S. and Russia have agreed to dismantle stockpiles of weapon-grade plutonium and nuclear weapons. It has decreased the number of active missiles but between the two countries we still have around 15,000 nuclear warheads. But recent cold war posturing has created enough distrust that Russia has just announced that it will exit the Nuclear Security Pact.

And yet nuclear disarmament is no longer at the forefront of the progressive movement in this country. The mobilization of millions of people out on the streets to protest nuclear arms is now just a faded memory. We shouldn’t be lulled into complacency. No system is failsafe, and since humans run the show, accidents happen. Most of the near-mishaps in the past were not acknowledged by government but instead covered-up.

That is the subject of the book and new movie Command and Control by filmmaker Robert Kenner and investigative reporter Eric Schlosser, author of ‘Fast Food Nation’. They explore the hidden history of the nuclear arms race and the undisclosed accidents that have occurred since the mid-20th century. It will show at the Naro on Wednesday, Oct 26 in our New Non-Fiction Film series.

Speaking at the film event will be Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired US Army Colonel and the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Wilkerson  is the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary. We’ll also hear from Steve Baggarly of the Norfolk Catholic Worker who will speak about his years of organizing acts of civil disobedience against the atomic weapons industry that have included protests at the uranium enrichment facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Sabers are rattling. The cold war is being ratcheted up once again in an ongoing kabuki play orchestrated by governments and the corporate media. This time there are no communist conspiracies involved to justify the buildup. Only the antagonisms of battling empires and nationalism. Instead of phasing out nukes as he had initially promised, Obama has initiated a 10 year plan to ‘modernize and enhance’ the nuclear arsenal. And taxpayers will be paying for it all to the tune of a trillion dollars.

Meanwhile the planet is burning. The imperative to transform a high carbon, fossil fuel economy into renewable green energy before it’s too late will require a focused mobilization of capital and labor equivalent in scale to the restructuring of industry for war. The goal can only be accomplished if we give up the arms race.

The Vatican submitted a paper this past December at the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons that called for total nuclear disarmament. And in speeches this year, Pope Francis has touted disarmament as a major goal alongside climate change.

I remember the final scene of ‘On The Beach’. It’s a long-shot looking down a deserted, post-apocalypse street in Melbourne that has a tattered wind-blown banner strung over it. It reads ‘There Is Still Time, Brothers.’ Maybe, but only if we soon confront our plight and realize that we’re are all on the beach together.


Upcoming Film Events at Naro Cinema



Acclaimed actor Jonathan Pryce provides an enigmatic performance in this iconic battle between greed and love. Shakespeare dramatizes the competing claims of tolerance and intolerance, religious law and civil society, justice and mercy; while in the character of Shylock he created one of the most memorable outsiders in all of theatre. Pryce’s Shylock is not only convincing in its duality but helps provide additional gravitas to Jonathan Munby’s moving production. Shows Tuesday, Oct 18. ‘Shakespeare’s Globe On Screen’.



The Obama administration has initiated a 10 year plan to modernize and enhance the nuclear arsenal that will fund the military-industrial complex to the tune of a trillion dollars. And yet the U.S. nuclear program has been shown to be unnecessary, destabilizing, and far too dangerous. This chilling new documentary from the filmmakers of the groundbreaking films Food, Inc. and Last Days in Vietnam is adapted from Eric Schlosser’s recent book about the government cover-up of a near nuclear catastrophe at a Titan II missile complex in Arkansas. A worker accidentally drops a socket, puncturing the fuel tank of an intercontinental ballistic missile carrying the most powerful nuclear warhead ever built by the U.S. Here is the untold story of America’s nuclear weapons program, based on recently declassified documents. It’s a decades-long nightmare of freak accidents, near misses, government ineptitude, and human fallibility. Shows Wednesday, Oct 26. With speakers and discussion.



In 2016, the Noordbrabants Museum in the Dutch city of Den Bosch held a special exhibition devoted to the work of Hieronymus Bosch, who died 500 years ago. This late-medieval artist lived his entire life in the city, causing uproar with his fantastical and utterly unique paintings in which hell and the devil always played a prominent role. In preparation for the exhibition, a team of Dutch art historians crisscrossed the globe to unravel the secrets of his art. The experts shuttle between Den Bosch, Madrid and Venice, cutting their way through the art world’s tangle of red tape, in a battle against the obstacle of countless egos and conflicting interests. Shows Tuesday, Nov 1. Presented with Chrysler Museum.


SEED: The Untold Story

Seed is a feature-length documentary featuring Vandana Shiva, Dr. Jane Goodall, Andrew Kimbell, and Winona LaDuke, following passionate seed keepers protecting our 12,000-year old food legacy. In the last century, 94% of our seed varieties have disappeared. As biotech chemical companies like Monsanto control the majority of our seeds, progressive movements around the world are fighting a David and Goliath battle to defend the future of our food. In a harrowing and heartening story, these reluctant heroes rekindle a lost connection to our most treasured resource and revive a culture connected to seeds. Seed is directed by Taggart Siegel (Queen the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us?,  The Real Dirt on Farmer John). Shows Wednesday, Nov 2.



Considered by many as Shakespeare’s most searching exploration of the meaning of kingship and the rising powers that can destroy it. Ruling by divine right, but himself ruled by caprice, King Richard exiles Henry Bolingbroke and seizes his father’s vast estates. While Richard is distracted by a rebellion in Ireland, Bolingbroke returns to England, intent on recovering his rightful property. Charles Edwards (Downton Abbey, Philomena) shines as King Richard in Simon Godwin’s dazzling production. Shows Tuesday, Nov 15.  Shakespeare’s Globe On Screen.



Germany, 1957. Attorney General Fritz Bauer receives crucial evidence on the whereabouts of Adolf Eichmann. The lieutenant colonel, responsible for the mass deportation of the Jews, is allegedly hiding in Buenos Aires. Bauer, himself Jewish, has been trying to take crimes from the Third Reich to court ever since his return from Danish exile. However, with no success so far due to the fierce German determination to repress its sinister past. Because of his distrust in the German justice system, Fritz Bauer contacts the Israeli secret service Mossad, and, by doing so, commits treason. Bauer is not seeking revenge for the Holocaust — he is concerned with the German future. In German with subtitles. Date to be announced.



An urgent and powerful exploration of the rapid militarization of the police in the United States. Starting on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, as the community grapples with the death of Michael Brown, filmmaker Craig Atkinson offers a stunning look at the current state of policing in America and a glimpse into the future. The Tribeca Film Festival winner for Best Documentary puts viewers in the center of the action from a ride-along with a South Carolina SWAT team to the floor of a congressional hearing on the proliferation of military equipment in small-town police departments. Date to be announced.