The decades-long Cold War is, in many ways, one of the most literary of all international conflicts – which is why, perhaps, it hasn’t found as perennial a home on screen as some of its louder cousins. That said, when we do see the Cold War on screen in all its introverted, paranoid glory it’s usually done rather well. This week sees the UK release of Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, which shines a light on a lesser-known but crucial chapter in US history and in the country’s relations with Russia: an American pilot, tasked with taking aerial shots of the USSR, is shot down and captured, leading a small-fry insurance lawyer (Tom Hanks) to broker the deal of a lifetime. Shortly after, we’ll be exposed to Trumbo, the Hollywood biopic about the horrors of McCarthyite blacklisting; while in February, the Coen brothers release their first full-blown Cold War picture in the form of Hail, Caesar!, which sees George Clooney’s matinee idol kidnapped by a group of blacklistees calling themselves ‘The Future’.
Cold War movies are at their best when diving headfirst into the paranoid entropy of the period’s international relations; The Hunt for Red October wins points for its relative lack of action while Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull remains laughable for the opposite reason. There’s no way the Russians, in the 1950s, would’ve doggedly and so brazenly pursued an American professor across the jungle, surely?
Either way; here, from the atom bomb to the Berlin Wall and from creepy surveillance to national pride, is our rundown of the Top 10 Cold War Movies…
10. Good Bye, Lenin! (2003)
One of the great German films of the new millennium, Good Bye Lenin! is a rollercoasting cocktail of wit, pathos and potent satire. Alex (a winning Daniel Brühl) is arrested during a political demonstration, causing his mother Christiane (Katrin Saβ) to have a heart attack and lapse into a coma. By the time she wakes eight months later, the Wall has fallen, the country is reunifying and the doctor warns that Christiane may not be stable enough for any major shocks. So it goes that the idealistic Alex, like any great propagandist, must mediate his mother’s experiences to prevent her discovering this major development. Though Good Bye Lenin!‘s focus is largely on this strange and sweet relationship, the real events provide such a major backdrop that it perversely becomes, at times, one of the most psychologically realistic depictions of shifting geopolitics ever committed to film. It is at heart an archetypal quirky tragicomedy; but its power stems from the very potent nationalist confusion coursing through its awkward, divided veins.
9. Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
Many Cold War films largely set on American soil will deal with just that: American soil. The basic end to the conflict, however, would have been nothing without the complex cooperation of Israel and Pakistan – and the Middle East provides Mike Nichols (with his last film) and Aaron Sorkin (with, refreshingly, his least Sorkin-y film) with some of their most striking material. The layers and layers of subtle politicking on show are an absolute delight, as the filmmakers deal head-on with not just the strangeness of how one charming Texan senator (Tom Hanks) basically finished the Cold War, but also the darker implications: Pakistan and Israel, it seems, were essentially pawns while Wilson, for his part, is somewhere near the middle of another Washington web – becoming involved essentially by accident, and only able to continue with this important mission because of his political unimportance. Crazy, huh? Also, there’s a scene where Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Slattery shout at each other for three minutes. What’s not to love?
8. The Iron Giant (1999)
It’s remarkable how effective the villain is in Brad Bird‘s first feature film. Kent Mansley, child-hating Bureau agent, goes from bad to worse during his pursuit of our peaceful protagonist, culminating in an impulsive nuclear button-pushing. When a mysterious extraterrestrial android crashes on Earth, Mansley is out in force; but while Bird makes much of the agent’s comic pomposity during the first act, it is clearly and pointedly suggested that only a paranoid, Red-hating fear is what causes events to escalate. Memorably, once the US Army start shooting, the Iron Giant reverts to his programming and shoots back harder, until the film’s sweet small town is on the brink of apocalypse. This small masterpiece is a compelling story of friendship and acceptance in which each dramatic beat is another step in the Cold War destruction manual.
7. The Hunt for Red October (1990)
An untraceable Soviet sub, commandeered by a possible defector, is at the centre of this thrilling international scramble. The sheer intelligent madness of this Tom Clancy adaptation is what keeps it ticking along to a largely improbable conclusion, but this is also the entire point: this is not what you would call a political grandstand of a movie. It is not terrifying or apocalyptic; it is not a meticulous criticism of its era’s international milieu. The Hunt for Red October is instead the greatest example of Cold War dynamics – the complexity, the subterfuge, the difficult trade-off between shady spy games and melodramatic artillery-waving – applied to a shockingly, fist-pumpingly good popcorn thrillride. It is suave, it is smart, it works like clockwork. It is as sharp as Sean Connery’s $20,000 hairpiece. It reminds you that no matter how murky the world’s workings get, there is always a good story waiting to be chiselled out.
6. Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)
Politically, the Cold War became something of a Second American Civil War in the 1950s, with paranoia and accusations replacing guns and ammunition. If you follow this metaphor, then Good Night, and Good Luck is one of the most gripping war films ever made. The most unique aspect of it – apart from its continual recourse to extended contemporary newsreel footage – is how nothing much happens, at least not in the manner we expect from this kind of film. Fraught, politicised, high-stakes arguing set in the world of television; surely someone should be screaming “I’m mad as Hell!” at some point? Yet George Clooney allows his film to unspool with a finely tuned quietness, allowing the seriousness (often, these days, hard to really comprehend) of the McCarthyist era to vividly come through. Good Night plays not as a Hollywood film but as a considered essay on rights and freedoms, and at the centre of it all is David Strathairn’s Ed Morrow, perfectly and beautifully embodied with a kind of mannerist poise. His role is essentially to persuade America, and the viewer, of how ridiculous this Communist finger-pointing all is; Strathairn does so throughout with a weariness verging on the irritable, and as a public figure speaking out about unseen issues, he becomes a great rationalist hero refusing to simply look on in horror.
5. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
It may wear the skin of so many forgotten ’50s B-movies, but The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the most impassioned, political and genuinely gripping science fiction movies ever made. Here’s the deal: a humanoid alien, Klaatu, arrives on Earth and is immediately shot by a nervous soldier. Klaatu, naturally, reveals that he’s perfectly peaceful and reasonable, and that his confusing-looking cylindrical device (the cause of the soldier’s panic) was a gift for the US President. This basic plot structure grows and repeats over the film, as Klaatu escapes and is chased, hides and is feared, tries to save Earth but is gunned down. Patricia Neal’s sympathetic earthling is one of her best roles, becoming part of the struggle to alert everyone to Klaatu’s ominous message: that in superweapons lies grave danger. As with the onlookers both military and civilian in The Iron Giant, these darn humans and their governments just won’t listen.
4. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
We associate great paranoid thrillers with the 1970s, and with actors such as Robert Redford and Warren Beatty. But in 1962, Frank Sinatra was stretching his action leading-man muscles as Maj. Bennett Marco, hunting down the truth behind his compadre’s apparent brainwashing. With glorious Freudian undertones, an hysterical though clearly intelligent approach to Cold War paranoia, and a surprisingly bleak ending, The Manchurian Candidate is so brilliant and ahead of its time that even its remake proved rather good. And in her role as a frightful mother (the Government allegory has rarely been clearer) an Oscar nominated Angela Lansbury has never been so terrifying.
3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Like any good Cold War mission, this film ticks along with the operational clarity of clockwork yet remains murky and secretive, dripping its information out in subtle fits and starts. There is much to grasp and interpret, yet we’re unsure how; Tomas Alfredson’s rigorous and quite striking aesthetic offers some means to make sense of all the criss-crossing and double-dealing but may be a mere distraction – we should, perhaps, just be listening harder to that precise dialogue, with its curt and enigmatic rhythms. The plot, of course, follows George Smiley’s (Gary Oldman) investigations into a mole at “the top of the circus”, that is, a high-ranker in the British secret service. But figuring it out is swiftly swept aside as we become confused and absorbed by an assortment of strange, languid career-best performances: a seething, browbeating Toby Jones; a mumbling and subdued Tom Hardy; a gruff but almost loveable Mark Strong; and of course Oldman, the man less in the centre than on the edge of all this, who received an Oscar nomination for his reticent yet wholly commanding embodiment of this grim, grey moment in history.
2. The Lives of Others (2006)
A perfect companion piece to Coppola’s The Conversation, this Oscar-winning film is just as quietly explosive. Ulrich Mühe stars as the Stasi officer listening in on a Berlin playwright’s apartment – which is strange, as the writer is a Socialist committed to the current regime. Slowly but surely, the Government and its officials make a series of ethical missteps which result in the writer, then our agent himself, turning rogue; these in turn worsen the political situation, leading to a behind-closed-doors game of cat, mouse and dog. Mühe is brilliant inhabiting (as with Oldman and Strathairn) the edges of his own story, and the understated complexities of this paranoid plot lead to a post-unification ending perfect in its straightforward loneliness. As with the best Cold War movies, the stakes here are apparently sky-high – the Stasi vs. a prominent dissident could make a compelling chase thriller – but all the work comes from below the surface, where the cogs never cease to turn.
1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Nothing compares. Literally, nothing compares. Other films have taken their Cold War logic all the way to Armageddon; many have used the paranoia of mutually-assured destruction for well-deserved comedy while others have mined it for fraught drama. Plenty have told a seemingly unrelated story but with this shady, slippery conflict playing out in the background. But before Strangelove, no one had attempted mashing all of this together and after Strangelove, no one’s dared to. The film, tracking the last day or so of human existence after a rogue US General (Jack D. Ripper, in case you’d forgotten) orders a nuclear strike on Russia, is remembered as a comic masterpiece yet allows itself moments of true poignancy – not necessarily because we care about the characters, but because whatever happens in this lunatic hallucination of a world, mortal fear is very serious business. This, ultimately, is what Strangelove deals with: not the bomb (“Dimitri!”) itself, not the delicacies of international relations, and not even the increasingly bizarre specifics of personal and political motivations; it is instead a cautionary tale about the deadly blind panic engendered by a disproportionate fear of all of these. This is why, though Strangelove is lovingly remembered as one of the funniest films about the Cold War, it is also perhaps the one that cuts deepest. Iconic images there may be, but the recurrent one surely is written, almost literally, upon each characters’ face: buckets and buckets, in most every frame, of shining human sweat.
You may argue we should be lined up and shot for certain omissions: A Beautiful Mind was a close call considering the part Cold War news stories play in its subject’s paranoid schizophrenia, while The Third Man only missed out because we’d written all we’d needed to elsewhere. What other gaping holes are in our list? Let us know.