Summer Movies: Going Nuclear When movies went nuclear they took us through every genre, every apocalypse and every nightmare scenario that made us duck and cover. Continuing of our summer movies series, we look at nuke flicks.

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And now, the next exciting episode of our Summer Movie Series, with an explosion and a little advice for any would-be hackers out there. Do not challenge a super-secret computer to play anything other than chess.

(Soundbite of movie "War Games")

Mr. JAMES ACKERMAN: (As Joshua) Shall we play a game?

Mr. MATTHEW BRODERICK: (As David Lightman) Oh.

Ms. ALLY SHEEDY: (As Jennifer Mack) I think it missed him.

Mr. BRODERICK: (As David Lightman) Yeah. Weird, isn't it?

Ms. ALLY SHEEDY: (As Jennifer Mack) Yeah.

Mr. BRODERICK: (As David Lightman) Well, love to. How about global thermonuclear war?

CONAN: From "War Games," of course, 25 years ago. That's right. The bomb, the plot device that can serve almost any function and almost any type of movie, from terrifying catalyst to deus ex machina. When movies went nuclear, they took us through every genre, every apocalypse, pre and post, and every nightmare scenario that made us duck and cover. What nuclear nightmares get you up at night? Giant bugs? Plutonium in your Kool-Aid? Colonel Bat Guano?

Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, You can send your nominees for best nuke flick to our blog at As always, we're joined in Studio 3A by our cinematic guide Murray "Megaton" Horwitz. He's the director and COO of the American Film Institute Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, which is here in the Washington, D.C., area. Murray, nice to have you back in the studio.

Mr. MURRAY HORWITZ (Director and COO, American Film Institute Silver Theatre and Cultural Center): Thank you. Good to be here. It's much better looking at you, Neal.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for that. The first movies after - obviously after World War II, about the perils of radiation.

Mr. HORWITZ: That's right. And it - you know, I think for the first time, people sort of got the idea that the absolute destruction of the entire world, of life as we knew it, was actually possible. I mean, they had seen what had happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and so it became - I mean, this is going to sound like trivializing it, but it really did become a kind of convenient metaphor.

I mean, we are all human beings after all, living in the shadow of death, and the bomb makes it more proximate. So, it was really a good plot device. I must say, as we look through the list of movies, there's somebody I always consult, in addition to my colleagues at AFI, which is my son, Alex, a filmmaker. He said, Dad, you know, this would've been a lot easier to narrow down if nuclear films didn't describe half the motion pictures ever made since World War II.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's true. But there's an astonishing range of these pictures. I mean, from - there's essentially monster movies...

Mr. HORWITZ: Right.

CONAN: There's apocalypse movies. There's thrillers.

Mr. HORWITZ: That's right. And also, a great artistic range. I mean, you've got Oscar-caliber movies, like "Dr. Strangelove" and "Blue Sky," which won an Oscar for Jessica Lange, "Hiroshima Mon Amour," down to, you know, "The Amazing Colossal Man" and "Attack of the Crab Monsters" and things like that.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Rosie's on the line. Rosie calling us up from Minocqua in Wisconsin.

ROSIE (Caller): Hi, fellows. Just wanted to say, since you mentioned in the prelude the "Godzilla," is there nothing better than the "Godzilla" movie with a baby Godzilla blowing the smoke rings. trying to learn to blow fire.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, that's not the original, but the "Godzilla" - you know, the original "Godzilla" is looked on as a campy, scary monster movie. But the 1954 Japanese original is more than just screams, but there are a lot of screams.

Mr. HORWITZ: That's right.

(Soundbite of movie "Godzilla")

(Soundbite of screaming)

CONAN: And Murray, American viewers wonder, how did Perry Mason get in this movie?

Mr. HORWITZ: Right. That's right. Well, that's "Gojira," as I guess we're bound to call it. I don't know, Rosie. I think the original "Godzilla" - if you've not seen it without Raymond Burr, who was later sliced into it by American distributors - is really quite something. I mean, it's a very, very good movie. It's a very eloquent movie, even though, you know, a lot of it was done on the cheap. It's one of those movies that falls into the category of the effect of the bomb.

I mean, there is, as you said, Neal, the bomb in the background, the bomb as threat, the effects of the bomb. And then, there are films about nuclear power, which is a whole another thing. But you know, we got to specify - and these are the ground rules folks - we're not talking about post-apocalypse movies like, you know, "Mad Max," or "A Boy and His Dog." We're talking about things that really have to do with when the bomb hits.

CONAN: I like "Boy and His Dog."

Mr. HORWITZ: They're great movies.

CONAN: All right. Great last line. Rosie, thanks very much for the call.

ROSIE: Thanks, guys. Love the show. Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: Thank you very much for that. Let's see if we can go now to Dean. And Dean is with us from Nashville in Tennessee.

DEAN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: You are on the air. Go ahead, please.

DEAN: Yes. I, actually, am a college professor in American studies and English literature, and I teach a couple of classes that deal directly with this genre of films in one way or another.

CONAN: Really?

DEAN: Yeah. And as a matter fact, over the summer, I just taught a class on the atomic age and showed my students "Gojira." They weren't even familiar with the American version "Godzilla," but when I showed them "Gojira," they really could see how it was a direct response to the Japanese experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah, well, you know, it just shows how far the cultural literacy of young people in America has descended if they don't know Raymond Burr in "Godzilla," what can I say?

CONAN: Do we have to tell you?

DEAN: Absolutely.

CONAN: But what's your favorite, Dean?

DEAN: If I had to pick one, I would pick "The War Game," which is not to be confused with "War Games," the Matthew Broderick film. "The War Game" was a "documentary" - and we should put that word in quotes - that was directed by Peter Watkins at the BBC.

CONAN: And we have clip from "The War Game." It was easy to play on people's fears of nuclear attack. "The War Game" is a fictional, worst-case scenario docudrama, sort of, about nuclear war and its aftermath in and around a typical English city.

(Soundbite of movie "The War Game")

Unidentified Man #1: Rochester in Kent. Now, two square miles of fire. Resulting from the heat of a thermonuclear missile which has exploded off-course on its path to London airport.

CONAN: And Dean, as I remember, the scenario in "The War Game" was something has gone terribly wrong in Vietnam and it escalates to nuclear war.

DEAN: Well, it's actually, it's in the Middle East, if I am not mistaken. And you know, it's that typical scenario where there is some sort of geopolitical tension that rises to an insurmountable level. But what's really remarkable about this film is that it looks to be a documentary, and it's got that kind of - one of the things that makes it so chilling is that kind of neutral BBC narration.

CONAN: Right.

DEAN: And when Peter Watkins produced the film, he submitted it to the BBC and they refused to show it. They thought it was unsuitable for the British audiences. And it remained unseen in Great Britain for 20 years, but he took it to the United States.

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah. It ran theatrically here, and I think, Neal, you saw it. I saw it in the theater.

CONAN: I did. Yeah.

Mr. HORWITZ: It was terrifying. And to this day, I think it's the only fiction film ever to win the Oscar for best documentary. It won the Oscar.

DEAN: Absolutely. I think in 1967 it also...

Mr. HORWITZ: '65, it says here, but who knows?

DEAN: And OK. Well...

CONAN: I am thinking '67.

DEAN: But it also engendered two other kind of culturally significant films from the '80s, which was "The Day After," which generated the largest American television viewing audience in history to that point, a 100 million viewers, and "Threads," which was the British version, which makes "The War Game" look like a day in the park. "Threads" is probably the single most terrifying nuclear war film ever made.


DEAN: So, this is the kind of a leap in the '80s. There were a series of other really interesting and terrifying films in the genre that has directly to do with nuclear war, not an analogy for something else, but actually, the thing itself.

CONAN: Dean, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

DEAN: My pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Peter in Dearborn. While there have been many films that have dealt directly with nuclear war, the only movie the acutely reflects the overwhelming paranoia of the time is Sidney Lumet's "Fail-Safe." This film, without any music to speak of, takes a noir-ish approach to its subject that makes it all the more terrifying. Finally, Walter Matthau's portrayal of the morally and ethically flawed Professor Groeteschele may well be the very model that was adopted by Donald Rumsfeld. Both men are too smart for their own good and the results are tragic for it all.

We have a clip from "Fail-Safe," made in the same year as "Dr. Strangelove," which is very strange. Basically, the same scenario, one bomber gets through. There are no laughs, of course, in this picture. Here, President Henry Fonda tells his Soviet counterpart what will happen if Moscow does get nuked.

(Soundbite of movie "Fail-Safe")

Mr. HENRY FONDA: (As The President ): I've ordered a Vindicator bomber to the air from Washington. In a few minutes, it will flying over New York City. It is carrying two 20-megaton bombs. The moment I know that Moscow has been hit, I will order that plane to drop its bombs. It will use the Empire State building for Ground Zero.

CONAN: A turn of phrase that has taken on a whole meaning since that time.

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah, a very ominous thing, and it's an ominous film. It's - I am getting chills just remembering that film. It is a - it featured - it was directed by Sidney Lumet, another great American director. Two of them were busy at work that year, he and Stanley Kubrick. And it features a screenplay. One of the reasons it's such a great movie - and you might remember it was revived for television about 25 years later - is that it was - or 35 - it was written by Walter Bernstein, the great writer.

CONAN: The great Walter Bernstein.

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah.

CONAN: And very spare, I mean, you think that that last scene is just - there's barely any decoration on the set. It's just a cube with Henry Fonda. And who is the interpreter?

Mr. HORWITZ: I don't want to address this. I don't know.

CONAN: All right.

Mr. HORWITZ: Somebody will call in and let us know.

CONAN: Google will let us know very quickly. Anyway, it's a great picture. There were, however, any number of films that were, well, less - they were kind of monster movies, we mentioned them. Radiation was in some ways as frightening as the fireball and there was a sense that it was invisible and could create these terrible, terrible monsters.

(Soundbite of movie " The Beginning of the End")

Unidentified Man #2: The locusts are moving on the downtown area.

(Soundbite of movie "Them")

Unidentified Man #3: Get the other antenna. He is helpless without the...

(Soundbite of movie "The Amazing Colossal Man")

Unidentified Woman: Please put me down.

Unidentified Man #4: Put her down. Put the girl down.

CONAN: Those were locusts in the "Beginning of the End," giant ants in "Them," and a man over 50-feet tall wreaking havoc on Las Vegas in "The Amazing Colossal Man."

Mr. HORWITZ: And I have to tell you, especially with regard to "The Amazing Colossal Man," folks, if you haven't seen this movie, don't bother to rent the original. Go get the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" version of it and perhaps some of the others. I mean, you'll die laughing.

CONAN: We are talking with Murray Horwitz, of course. It's our annual Summer Movie Festival. We are talking about best nuke flicks today and you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's go now to Russ. And Russ is on the line with us from Princeton in New Jersey.

RUSS (Caller): Hey, guys.


Mr. HORWITZ: How are you doing?

RUSS: I think that the best nuclear movie by a hundred megaton has to be "Dr. Strangelove," not only a great nuclear movie but a masterpiece, period. Everything clicked in this movie - great writing, great acting, great set design. The war room is, you know, incredible. And if the measure of a special movie is how many famous scenes it contains, this movie has more than I can count on all the fingers that Dr. Strangelove has on both hands.

CONAN: And of course, one of the things that clicked the best was Peter Sellers in multiple roles here. He plays President Merkin Muffley, who places a call to the leader of the Soviet Union.

(Soundbite of Movie "Dr. Strangelove")

Mr. PETER SELLERS: (As President Merkin Muffley) Now then, Dmitri, you know how we've always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the bomb. The bomb, Dmitri, the hydrogen bomb.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: His timing is impeccable. Russ, what can I tell you? When you are right, you're right. This to me is the best nuclear film of all time, and not least because it's darn near the only comedy in this genre. It's a - if you can call it a genre - and it makes perfect sense in a way that after 20 years almost of the nuclear era and living under this awful threat of - I mean, I did duck-and-cover exercises in my classroom in the second grade. What really becomes the best of all films is a comedy and a really vicious satire.

CONAN: And George C. Scott as the general, you know, 52 like that devil, it's amazing.

Mr. HORWITZ: He's really good. And Scott always said that this was his favorite role, at least he thought it was his best performance, and I think he might be right.

CONAN: He might be right. Russ, thanks very much for the call.

RUSS: My pleasure.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And let's go to Gary, Gary with us from Cleveland, Ohio.

GARY (Caller): How are you doing? Enjoying the show.

CONAN: Very well. Thank you. Oh, thank you.

GARY: By the way, on "Dr. Strangelove," one of the best scenes, if you remember when Peter Sellers - when there was a fight, they said, no violence in here, this is the war room.

Mr. HORWITZ: Gentlemen, gentlemen. No fighting in here. This is the war room.

GARY: Yeah. No fighting in here. My favorite, I still think and the scariest is the original "On the Beach."

CONAN: A terrific movie.

GARY: Based on the Neville Shute book...

CONAN: Yeah.

GARY: From '51, I believe. There was a sort of a remake.

CONAN: Here we have a pre-"Psycho" Anthony Perkins convincing his wife to kill herself in the event of radiation sickness, which was going to be inevitable in this picture. And she has to give the pill to her baby daughter, too, Jennifer.

(Soundbite of movie "On the Beach")

Ms. DONNA ANDERSON: (As Mary Holmes) You are not trying to tell me you want me to kill Jennifer.

Mr. ANTHONY PERKINS: (As Lt. Cmdr. Peter Holmes) Baby, don't be an idiot. Supposing you get it first, what are you going to do then, struggle them yourself until you drop? Jenny might live for days and be sick and helpless in a crib with you dead on the floor beside her. Don't you see that? Don't you see it?

CONAN: It's an amazing - and the cast, you've got Fred Astaire, great cast.

GARY: You see the square in, I think, it's Sydney or - I am not sure, or Adelaide, I think it was. And you just see the banner flapping in the wind and its streets totally deserted. You never see any violence, never see anybody die. It's just how it happened.

CONAN: And the heartbreaking scene, when the American submarine goes back to the States to run down the radio signal, maybe somebody is alive. And it's a Coke bottle...

GARY: Coke bottle pulling it, yeah.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. HORWITZ: It's terrifying. It's poignant. You are right, Neal. It has a great cast. Gregory Peck, Eva Gardner, a very important role for Fred Astaire in a completely non-dancing serious role.

GARY: Right. And he's the guy that was a driver, if I recall. (Unintelligible).

Mr. HORWITZ: Right. Just an anecdote, on the way into the studio today, one of the younger producers on the NPR's Talk of the Nation staff said, I am scared of the bomb now. I saw "On the Beach." It's an amazing movie. And it is.

CONAN: Thanks, Gary.

GARY: Should really - should really read the book, though, too.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's see if we can go to - let's go to Paul, Paul with us from Kalamazoo in Michigan.

PAUL (Caller): Hi there.


PAUL: Well, I wanted to vote for "The China Syndrome."

CONAN: The nuclear power movie.

Mr. HORWITZ: Yes. Thanks for mentioning nuclear power movies, Paul.

PAUL: Mm-hm.

CONAN: And it's not just - that's part of a genre that has to include the film also called "Silkwood," where - this is like "The China Syndrome" - this is about a real person, Karen Silkwood, it was a, well, a poison with plutonium.

(Soundbite of movie "Silkwood")

Mr. BRUCE MCGILL: (As Mace Hurley) Now, come on, Karen, concentrate.

Ms. MERYL STREEP : (As Karen Silkwood) How did the plutonium get in my house?

Mr. MCGILL: (As Mace Hurley) Did you put it there?

Ms. STREEP: (As Karen Silkwood): Did I what? What are you crazy? You think I what? You think I'd contaminate myself? You think I'll do that?

Mr. MCGILL: (As Mace Hurley) I think you'll do just about anything to hurt this company.

CONAN: And that's scary in a number of ways including, well, you know, the big villain, the big corporation.

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah. And a terrific film. It's by Mike Nichols. It's got Meryl Streep in one of her best roles. But also, Paul mentioned "China Syndrome" from 1979, also a good director, James Bridges, and what's interesting to me about that one is that Jane Fonda, who plays the reporter in "China Syndrome," is - the reason she starts the movie - when she starts the movie, she is trying to find alternate energy sources. It's a little contemporary.

CONAN: Anyway, thank you very much for the call, Paul.

PAUL: Thank you.

CONAN: And Murray Horwitz, as always, thank you for your time.

Mr. HORWITZ: Thank you. This was fun.

CONAN: Yeah. We'll be back next week. Murray Horwitz, the director and COO of the American Film Institute Silver Theatre and Cultural Center here in the Washington area. Tomorrow, Ira Flatow is here with Science Friday. We'll talk to you again on Monday. Have a great weekend. This is Talk of the Nation. Goodbye, Slim Pickens. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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