Hollywood, nuclear war, and the art of saving the world

By Emilia Javorsky | November 14, 2023

A scene from the 1983 television movie The Day After

On November 20, 1983, more than 100 million Americans tuned in to watch The Day After, a groundbreaking television event that would change the world. The film depicted the escalation and aftermath of an apocalyptic exchange between the United States and Soviet Union in a way that turned John W. Vessey Jr., then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “to stone.” President Reagan’s memoir, An American Life, revealed that the movie changed his mind about nuclear policy, which in turn led him to sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, significantly reducing Cold War arsenals.

That same year saw the release of the blockbuster techno-thriller WarGames, starring Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy. In it, a high-school student accidentally hacks into a North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, supercomputer, activates a simulation, and nearly triggers a nuclear war. After watching it, Reagan (who was a family friend of WarGames’ writer Larry Lasker) asked Vessey if such an event could actually occur. “The problem,” replied Vessey gravely, “is much worse than you think.” Eighteen months later, Reagan issued the first ever presidential directive on computer security and ordered the ramping up of defenses for such critical systems. This substantially decreased vulnerability to cyber-attacks, and the accompanying risks of nuclear escalation.

These incidents reveal how storytellers and artists can not only entertain but also shift narratives and help change policy. Art plays an important role in society—it can inform, bring awareness to societal issues, and further discourse, inside and outside the government. As an example, Guernica, a painting completed by Pablo Picasso in 1937, depicts the horrific aftermath of a bombing by Nazi Germany and Italy. A tapestry of the painting hangs outside the United Nations Security Council Chamber and serves as a reminder of the tragedies of war. The important role of artists—whose creations can help humans better understand their world and thus make it safer—must therefore be recognized and rewarded.

To achieve their intended purpose, each piece of art uses unique means. This can be seen in the contrasting approaches of the two films that affected President Reagan. By focusing on the human stories of everyday Americans, The Day After lays bare the realities of living and dying through nuclear apocalypse in a heart-wrenching, almost unwatchable way. The feature centers on people rather than politicians and therefore resonates and haunts audiences in a personal way. WarGames, instead, uses pace and tension to excite and engage, utilizing humor, action, and romance to open audiences to the film’s more serious and cautionary lesson.

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“WarGames began as a character story about a precocious kid’s journey to a mentor, a brilliant, self-exiled scientist in need of a successor,” writer Walter Parkes explained in an interview for this article. “But it was our own journey as writers which led us to the undeniable truth about the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons. We’re humbled and gratified that the movie’s underlying message–that for certain games, ‘the only winning move is not to play’—continues to resonate.”

Both films reflected growing anxiety about escalating nuclear tensions and ongoing technological change. “Timing turns out to be everything,” director Nicholas Meyer said in an email. “The Day After arrived at a confluence of culture, politics, policy, and technology, uniquely positioning it to exert an outsize influence, which in turn allowed it to focus the world’s attention for an instant on the single most urgent topic: Earth’s survival. Such a confluence may never occur again,” he added.

Conversely, WarGames was also the first major motion picture about hacking, and as such was instrumental in framing emerging narratives around information technology. By tapping into and surfacing widespread concerns and conveying them to leaders in emotive and compelling ways, the filmmakers communicated the urgency necessary to trigger critical action at the highest level.

Unfortunately, many of these catastrophic threats remain with us today. Geopolitical tensions between atomic superpowers remain as high as ever, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock is set to 90 seconds to midnight, the closest it’s ever been to global catastrophe since its creation in 1947. WarGames also portrays the risk of integrating artificial intelligence into nuclear command and control systems, which would drastically increase the likelihood of accidental, world-ending escalation (as depicted in the Future of Life Institute’s recent film Artificial Escalation). Furthermore, with advancing development and deployment of autonomous weapons systems, WarGames’ underlying message of “don’t get humans out of the loop” is more prescient than ever. These films, however, should serve as crucial reminders to storytellers that their ability to transcend fictional narratives to exert positive change in the world is well documented.

Their examples should also inspire bravery. The creators of The Day After deliberately left ambiguous which superpower launches first, and in doing so ensured that the horrors of nuclear war remained the film’s primary antagonist, resisting the temptation to tap into anti-Soviet sentiments running rampant at the time. This move was instrumental to the movie’s success, but came at a cost to its creators, who faced substantial backlash. The New York Post, for example, accused Meyer of “doing Yuri Andropov’s work for him.” To create change around such highly charged topics, artists must be prepared to take risks.

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Filmmakers’ gift in this area comes with enormous responsibility. Movies and television are one of the primary mechanisms through which the public internalize catastrophic risk areas like artificial intelligence and nuclear war. Any conversation about AI will likely mention James Cameron’s The Terminator sooner or later (more likely sooner). It is vital that writers, directors, actors, producers, and other artists appreciate the impact their output can have, and therefore treat their subjects with the seriousness they deserve. They should consider not only how they can entertain, but also how they can explore these global threats in factual, nuanced ways that seek to advance discourse.

The recent art installation Amnesia Atomica and videogame The Nuclear Biscuit, as examples, utilize virtual reality to engage the public on nuclear war. Similarly, fiction has influenced policy by illustrating the threats and opportunities of emerging technologies. George Orwell’s 1984 forewarned the use of surveillance to enable authoritarianism so powerfully that “Orwellian” is a commonly used term to describe such invasive government practices, while Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report is frequently cited in academic and policy discussions as a cautionary tale about the potential dangers of overreliance on technology in law enforcement. Conversely, storytelling can also be used to imagine and realize more positive visions of our technological future, from the techno-utopianism depicted in the TV series Star Trek to the world wide web and geostationary communications satellites envisioned by Arthur C. Clarke.

These influences should be understood and publicly acknowledged, so they may inspire the next generation of artists. WarGames writers Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker, and Brandon Stoddard, visionary behind The Day After, along with writer Edward Hume and director Nicholas Meyer—all 2023 Future of Life Award honorees—didn’t receive enough recognition at the time of their achievements. But their work and its tangible impact demonstrate how storytellers and artists can shape the collective consciousness and provide instructive examples on mitigating intractable global threats.

Together, we make the world safer.

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