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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On the Brink (originally published 4/01)

As I write this, tension continues to run high between the United States and China over the 24 Americans who are still in custody there. The dispute has received widespread media coverage partly, of course, because it is a diplomatic crisis of high international importance, but also because it is a rattling good story in its own right, quite apart from its political significance. It's what the Hollywood types call a "high concept" story. You can pitch it to a studio executive over lunch and have a deal nailed down before the salads are served.

International tensions have formed the basis of a number of films through the years, most recently in last year's "Thirteen Days," a dramatization of the Cuban Missile Crisis. While you're waiting for the next report from the State Department about the state of our relations with China, you may want to pass the time by looking for the following films about international incidents on home video.

"The Mouse That Roared" (1959). Two of my favorite films about tensions between nations are comedies that treat the whole matter satirically. The first is a British confection starring Peter Sellers as the Prime Minister of Grand Fenwick, a tiny European country facing an economic crisis. Their solution is to declare war on the United States, stage an invasion, surrender quickly, then live off U.S. foreign aid. This is Sellers at his peak, playing two roles in addition to the Prime Minister.

"Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964). Here again we have a satire about an international incident, and here again the star is Peter Sellers, and once again he is cast in multiple roles. Director Stanley Kubrick's comic nightmare postulates an insane general's manipulation of military protocol to launch, on his own authority, a nuclear attack on Russia that cannot be countermanded. Even the President can't call off the attack without a special code, which the mad general refuses to disclose. Creating a genuinely funny comedy out of this kind of material required of Kubrick and his cast an extraordinary level of sure-footedness. One false step could have reduced the film to an exercise in shockingly poor taste. Fortunately, Kubrick and his company were more than up to the task. An appropriately quirky promotional trailer for the film is reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"Fail-Safe" (1964). The flip side of "Dr. Strangelove," a deadly serious drama based on a very similar premise, was this white-knuckle tale of nuclear brinkmanship gone over the brink. With bombers on their way to Russia and no way to recall them, the President of the United States (Henry Fonda) must find a way to convince the Russians that America does not want to start World War III.

"The Bedford Incident" (1968). In this tense Cold War drama, Richard Widmark stars as the captain of an American destroyer assigned to seek out hostile submarines in the North Atlantic. To his dismay, a journalist (Sidney Poitier) has been permitted to tag along. They make contact with a Russian sub and begin to stalk it. The relatively routine engagement escalates into something much larger, however, when a young ensign, overreacting under pressure, accidentally fires off a nuclear weapon. With full-scale nuclear war hanging in the balance, the destroyer captain must decide whether to listen to his military instincts, which tell him to close in for the kill, or to the journalist, who argues for restraint.

"The Missiles of October" (1974). Predating "Thirteen Days" by a quarter-century, this made for television dramatization of the events surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis originally played to an audience that remembered the trauma of that time all too well. William Devane, in an early starring role, plays John F. Kennedy. Martin Sheen, in his first role as a West Wing insider, co-stars as Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

Once the current real-life drama with China has played itself out, I wouldn't be surprised to see it, too, dramatized for the screen. If it all blows over rather quickly, it might turn up as a made for TV quickie. If it escalates into something major, it may even get the full Hollywood treatment with major stars and a wide release. Unless, of course, it gets entirely out of hand, in which case there may not be any more movies for a very long time.

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