From Parmanu to The Manhattan Project — films that capture the consequences of nuclear warfare
Parmanu highlights a significant chapter in Indian history for the current generation, but the consequences of nuclear warfare go beyond national interest.
Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran is India’s first film focused on creation of a nuclear bomb by India in 1998. The film’s tenor is quasi-patriotic as its context is valuable to the evolution of India as a nation. Each time India has tested a nuclear weapon, global superpowers (read the USA) have been vocally critical as have been its NATO allies; also leading to partial economic sanctions for a period of time.
Given India and Pakistan’s volatile political balance, and China’s big brother like glance over Indian territories, India’s nuclear ambitions tend to spark angst and arm-wringing on international political and diplomatic platforms. Parmanu, the film, focuses on the process of testing a nuclear device with utmost secrecy, but steers clear of the ominous consequences that nuclear strikes can bring.
The various facets of a nuclear power have been chronicled in some worthy Hollywood films over decades.
The overpowering fear of potential nuclear strikes have dominated American imagination for over five decades; as the Cold War with the erstwhile Soviet Union raged on. Each of these films tell a good, powerful story and each one reiterates the destruction nuclear weapons can cause. Interestingly, almost all these films are available for streaming online and some are up on YouTube for free viewing.
One film that marks the nuclear bomb into our psyches in the most effective manner is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove or: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. This 1964 black comedy and political satire brings to fore paranoia and hyperbole around a first nuclear strike; the one that would deliver Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD, an apt acronym) between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Set in the peak of the Cold War, Stanley Kubrick co-wrote and directed this masterpiece that is part of every top 100 and top 50 films list. Dr Strangelove is an unhinged nuclear scientist with concealed Nazi fealties. The film’s plot has a mentally disturbed American Air Force general ordering a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. With cold satire and chilling humor, the plot follows the efforts of the American President, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a Royal Air Force officer when they try to recall the bombers. Parallel stories of two different bomber aircrafts lead to a grim conclusion; all it takes is one act of madness for global destruction through a nuclear war. Peter Sellers, playing several parts in the film, including that of Dr Strangelove, is nothing short of masterful.
In the same year, 1964, Sidney Lumet delivered the classic Fail Safe. Inspired from a 1962 novel with the same title, this one has a more ominous interpretation as it sucks the viewer into the middle of a developing nuclear crisis. Made in the purist form of Cold War thrillers, Fail Safe follows the consequences of an accidental thermonuclear strike that the US commits on Moscow after getting an erroneous message.
With Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Frank Overton and Fritz Weaver playing key characters in this attempt at damage control by saving the world from the brink of mutual destruction, Fail Safe leaves you with a sense of dread. As human beings, we were literally one wrong command away from destroying life on this planet.
The impact of thermonuclear weapons on a country’s social and political landscape and it’s people has been captured through the lens of youth in Hollywood. In 1986, Christopher Collet, Cynthia Nixon and John Lithgow starred in The Manhattan Project, a simple and convincing story about a young boy whose high school science project could blow a portion of his country to smithereens.
When the young school kid suspects that his mother’s boyfriend is a big shot in classified government research, he ends up stealing a bit of plutonium compound for the heck of it. What follows is keen investigation by federal authorities and state officials on the boy’s political leanings, potential employers, and background. Paranoia and mental violence are at the crux of this story.
A second story, different in setting but relevant and similar in context is A Boy and His Dog. Made in 1975, this post-apocalyptic satire traces the story of a young boy Don, and his telepathic dog Blood, as they wander a post nuclear dust-laden USA. Beneath them, an underground city attempts to recreate suburbia, but for them to defy extinction they need Don’s sperm. What ensues is a funny, politically loaded critique and a science-fiction film that remains relevant till date.
But the most poignant films that focus on thermonuclear war are the ones that imagine survival after a nuclear war. These films have focused on everything from small towns to continents to encapsulate immense risks and life threatening impact of a nuclear strike on humanity. On the Beach, the 1959 classic starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire, shows a community trying to come to terms with future extinction.
In Australia, after the world has faced nuclear war, people must prepare for the end of all life. This film had become a global sensation crossing over to the Soviet Union successfully, with a Moscow premiere. There’s the ominous and chilling Testament and The Day After, both films made in 1983, beautifully represented the morbid thoughts that dominated American minds in this decade. In both the movies, life in small town America is shown after a nuclear attack; where air, water, food are all poisoned by nuclear dust and death is impending.
Miracle Mile, the post-apocalyptic thriller made in 1988, features Anthony Edwards as the young man who overhears that a nuclear strike will soon hit his city; and therefore tries to evacuate as many people as he can. All these films capture overwhelming pessimism and helplessness that common folk in America and the West lived with during the Cold War. For the specter of nuclear strikes always hung heavy over their lives.
At the other end, the nuclear narrative is a lot starker and horrifying. Soviet Union faced the worst ever nuclear site disaster with the Chernobyl incident in Ukraine. Having spawned a sub-genre of films about this disaster and it’s lasting consequences, Chernobyl continues to draw interest with the former USSR’s legacy of burying the truth and telling half truths. It also brings to life real footprints and evidence of a nuclear accident.
The short film Chernobyl Heart, and the Ukrainian documentary Chernobyl 3828, both award winning projects tell humane and heart-wrenching stories about the disaster and it’s lasting after effects. With HBO having commissioned an elaborate, high budget five part miniseries to show this incident as it happened, Chernobyl is set to become a popular point of discussion. Starring Skellan Skarsgard and Emily Watson, this mini-series will capture stories of unknown folk from the site who sacrificed their lives and health to save Europe from radiation exposure.
Parmanu makes a very progressive start in highlighting a significant chapter in Indian history for the current generation. It focuses on the wins of a nuclear weapon for India. But the consequences of nuclear warfare go beyond national interest; it can wipe off life and humanity for good. Watching the film in context will make it’s story more relevant for the audiences.
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