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The nuclear bomb’s enduring, evolving place in pop culture

The bomb has haunted pop culture since the Cold War. But it’s different now.

Petter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove; Cillian Murphy as Robert Oppenheimer. Columbia Pictures; Universal Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Before the bomb, the destruction of humanity was strictly the purview of the non-human. Whole civilizations told stories of floods or plagues sent by the gods designed to wipe everyone out. People could imagine mass weather events or catastrophes that might end the human race, but in those stories, our role in our own destruction was indirect, at most. No person could just push a button and end it all for everyone.

That changed when the world realized how nuclear power could be harnessed. Now, we could level whole cities, or more, in the blink of an eye, and scientists knew there was a chance we could accidentally light the atmosphere on fire. For the first time in human history, the power to destroy the planet was in our hands. There was no stuffing the evils back into Pandora’s box. (Following the Trinity test, which proved the capacity of the bomb he’d spearheaded, J. Robert Oppenheimer famously quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” He didn’t just mean himself.)

The discovery that any of us, theoretically, can annihilate the whole of humanity — perhaps by accident or on a whim — induces a whole new level of existential angst. There’s the fear of sudden death, of course. But then there’s a deeper dread, the sense that something in the balance of the universe has shifted. With a deity, you can petition and hope for forbearance. But look, we all know what humans are like.

Even if a person can push that threat of total destruction out of mind for a while, it provokes an ambient anxiety, a permanent mental load. The movie industry has always been both a shaper of fears and a reflection of them, a means for dealing with reality at arm’s length, through a big screen. The bomb, and the world that brought it into being, has flooded back into pop culture in recent years, from Manhattan to Asteroid City to Oppenheimer. But that’s just the continuation of a long history: no wonder that in the Cold War years just after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, filmmakers were obsessed with the events that could turn “mutually assured destruction” into just “destruction.” The movies understood the grave danger and the pitch-black farce of it all.

A man in a black-and-white image holding a 1950s-era phone receiver to his ear. He looks worried.
In 1964, Fail Safe explored the fear of accidental annihilation.
Columbia Pictures

Which is how we got movies like Fail Safe (1964), a somewhat plodding but haunting Sidney Lumet drama in which a technology failure sets off an international incident that ends in mass destruction. Characters throughout the film espouse varying and somewhat academic views on whether a nuclear war, and the mass deaths that would ensue, would be a necessary evil to exterminate Communism. Yet rubber meets the proverbial road when a computer issues an erroneous order to strike; by the end of the movie, we’re watching ordinary people get exterminated in a nuclear bomb explosion.

There were many movies like Fail Safe during the Cold War, somber dramas that understand the weightiness of the destructive power now in the hands of fallible humans. The 1966 pseudo-documentary The War Game, for instance, portrays the effects of an all-out nuclear war on ordinary citizens — most notably, by the end, children whose futures have been obliterated before their eyes. Nearly a generation later, films like The Day After (1983) and Threads (1984) were still at it. Meanwhile, Japanese filmmakers dealt over and over with the grief and psychological trauma of a country that saw the bomb firsthand, developing everything from the Godzilla films to Barefoot Gen (1983) and Grave of the Fireflies (1988) to process the complexity of the ongoing wound.

While many movies took an appropriately grave stance, there was a bleak comedy to it all, a sense of total absurdity that shone through perhaps the most famous nuclear film of the Cold War: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 barnburner. In Strangelove, doctrines of mutually assured destruction and the wielding by powerful men of powerful weapons are cast in slyly phallic terms, suggesting that if humanity wipes itself out it will be mostly because of some horny, insecure men. The film once more ends with footage of detonating bombs (for which it uses footage of actual bomb tests, including the Trinity test). A less satirical but still light touch pops up in WarGames (1983), about a teenage hacker who accidentally gains access to a DoD mainframe computer that simulates nuclear war and almost starts World War III. (Ronald Reagan was reportedly obsessed with WarGames.)

During the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war in films was literal, not a metaphor (Strangelove’s phallic fixation notwithstanding). Mutually assured destruction was something you just knew about, as an average person on the street; it was something you could both fear and joke about, fodder for gallows humor and nightmares. A couple of generations of kids had been trained in how to hide under the desk in case of a nuclear blast, just as their children and grandchildren would participate in active shooter drills decades later. The president was on TV proposing policies to shoot weapons out of the sky from space. The ability to wipe out humanity felt concentrated in a couple of words: A-bomb, H-bomb, thermonuclear warfare.

Yet somewhere in the last few decades, “nuclear warfare” has fallen out of most people’s consciousness, at least on a daily basis. I was in the second grade when the Soviet Union was dissolved, and I never learned to hide under my desk. Activists, military strategists, and people whose jobs depend on thinking about nuclear warfare know that the threat is hardly gone, but the ordinary person on the street, when asked what worries them most about the end of humanity, is thinking of different matters.

There are always exceptions to the rule, of course; several guys living off the grid on the fringes of New York City in the new season of How to With John Wilson cite “nuclear war” as one of the things they feel safe from. (Nobody could accuse them of perfect logic.) But even the movies have abandoned nuclear warfare as the scary way to raise the stakes in a blockbuster. Now it’s comic book villains or climate change, or (as in the recent Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One), sentient AIs gone rogue.

The TV drama Manhattan delved into the lives of the creators of the bomb.
WGN America

Curiously, though, as a culture we’ve started to circle back around to the Manhattan Project — perhaps, you might say, as a way to process the present. We live in the world that Oppenheimer and his team created, a world that seemingly would have eventually been created by someone, whether American or German or Soviet scientists. It’s a new stage in human history, in which we have the power previously reserved for the gods. And plenty of us are thinking about it all the time. The feeling of doomsday lingers thickly today; the real question isn’t whether you feel as though the world is ending but how you think it will end and why, and what you plan to do about it.

In the midst of this, the origin of this power is worth reexamining, both as a moment where the cat permanently escaped the bag and a metaphor for a lot of other “bombs,” some that are slowly detonating. There was, for instance, the excellent TV drama Manhattan, which premiered in 2014 and explored the lives of the scientists and their families at Los Alamos. The Hiroshima bombing was the backdrop for a painful (and controversial) sequence in Eternals (2021); the question of atomic destruction and the survival of man is threaded throughout Alan Moore’s Watchmen comic (1986) and its adaptations as a film (2009) and as a TV series (2019).

Even more recently, Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City presents a story of Cold War-era dread, with bomb tests occurring in the background every so often. The feeling that destruction could be around any corner is what powers the film, which ultimately is a reflection on how we use art to set ourselves apart from existential angst and grief and process it at arm’s length. And then there’s Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s R-rated juggernaut that’s less a biopic and more a movie about power and its production, from the atomic level to the geopolitical.

Part of the reason Oppenheimer is so successful, and so brilliant as a document of our time, is that it latches onto exactly this fact about the detonation of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. These were not events that stand in isolation as acts of war. They are events with long, long fallouts, decades of people whose lives and health and families and existence are scarred by having been targeted, and others whose geographic separation from the events allowed them to pretend a psychological separation, too.

Yet the stories we tell about the nuclear age betray us. We are afraid. At best, we learn how to avoid thinking about it too much. Any apocalypse, however, is a moment of unveiling, and since then we have lived through wave after wave of new apocalyptic discoveries, to the point where we’re just waiting to see which one will be the big one. The stories we tell evolve a little, but what they tell us is all the same. We have become gods, and also, the bringer of death.

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