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A Fearful Sum Recalculated

Nuclear war on film isn't new, but the way it's realistically depicted in a summer thriller says a lot about our changing attitudes

June 23, 2002|KENNETH TURAN

"I have become Vishnu, destroyer of worlds."

--J. Robert Oppenheimer in

"The Day After Trinity"

If, as Dr. Johnson said, the knowledge of one's imminent death concentrates the mind wonderfully, a nuclear explosion in a film ought to make everything else irrelevant, ought to clear away the cobwebs of mere entertainment and force us to think the unthinkable, to contemplate the possibility of our own demise and what we can do about it.

At least that's the theory. The reality, however, is rather different. The moviegoing audience, like the public in general, has apparently shown a remarkable resilience, an ability to shrug off bigger and bigger shocks, and make believe they are messages intended for some other species on some other planet. The threat of world extinction isn't called "the unthinkable" for nothing, and not thinking about it is understandably most people's posture of choice.

The most recent, and in some ways, the most disturbing nuclear blast ever put on film is the rogue bomb detonated under a Baltimore football stadium by terrorists in "The Sum of All Fears," the Phil Alden Robinson-directed version of Tom Clancy's 1991 novel that opened a few weeks ago.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 26, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 6 inches; 241 words Type of Material: Correction
Actor's name--A photo caption accompanying a June 23 Sunday Calendar Perspective on "The Sum of All Fears" misspelled Peter Sellers' last name.

To better understand what's different about it, what this film accomplished and what that may mean, a look at some cinematic nuclear landmarks is a good place to start.

The ground zero, so to speak, of all atomic films is "The Day After Trinity," Jon Else's devastating 1980 documentary about Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project and the creation of the world's first nuclear device at Los Alamos. Using chilling bomb test footage and extensive interviews with those who were there and did the deed, Else's film captures both the euphoria of youthful scientists who thought they were saving the world and the horror that replaced those good feelings after the first test weapon was dropped at New Mexico's Trinity site and the first hostile bomb all but vaporized Hiroshima.

Here were thoughtful, sensitive, cultured men and women who suddenly couldn't avoid the agonizing realization that without thinking it through, they might have taken the first steps in the world's ultimate destruction.

If there is a more dramatic, more pivotal moment in 20th century history, it's hard to think of it.

The movie business was quick to exploit the dramatic potential of this powerful new weapon, even if people perhaps didn't realize at first quite how powerful it was. As early as 1945 and 1946, according to the American Film Institute catalog, fast-moving B-picture makers made now-forgotten films like "Danger Woman," "Shadow of Terror" and "First Yank Into Tokyo" that used the A-bomb as a plot device.

Perhaps the first film to capture, as much metaphorically as actually, the bone-chilling horror of a nuclear explosion was 1955's completely unlikely "Kiss Me Deadly," directed by Robert Aldrich and very loosely adapted from the Mickey Spillane novel. Starring Ralph Meeker as hard-boiled detective Mike Hammer, "Kiss Me Deadly" involved the search for something he called "the Great Whatsit," a small suitcase that, opened so much as a crack, emitted an eerie, otherworldly glow.

Yes, it's a nuclear device, and, in one of the great moments in American film paranoia, it does detonate. Although the notion of an atomic bomb that goes off when a suitcase opens all the way may not have been the most accurate science, few films captured so well the sense of strange, helpless terror about thermonuclear weapons the nation was starting to feel.

Just about a decade later, in 1964, one studio, Columbia Pictures, brought out two very different films that focused on the bomb going off, the lionized "Dr. Strangelove" and the rarely revived "Fail-Safe."

Archly subtitled "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," "Dr. Strangelove's" brilliant black-humor approach to the apocalypse, complete with Slim Pickens' Major T.J. "King" Kong riding the bomb like a bucking bronco, turned annihilation and a closing newsreel shot of the blast's mushroom cloud into a sophisticated entertainment.

"Fail-Safe," which was shown this year at Cannes as part of a sidebar program on restored films, is quite a different animal. It's a bleak, thoughtful, quietly terrifying film about the choices an American president (the irreplaceable Henry Fonda) has to make when a mechanical glitch mistakenly sends U.S. bombers on a mission to nuke Moscow and can't be called back.

With Walter Matthau especially mesmerizing as an unapologetic hawk, it features the kind of examination of serious issues that has become harder and harder to find from Hollywood.

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