The Cold War is hopefully and mercifully a matter of the past now, creeping beyond the daily rigours of this generation; but the era in question still manages to send the occasional chill down the spine. Every act in history finds its way into movies, and the Cold War – like the two disastrous World Wars and the Great Depression preceding it, and the age of subsequent industrial espionage, corruption and the more recent wars – has left a deep mark in the world of cinema. Having born into a generation after the Cold War, my reconstruction of the mood of the times is chiefly drawn from the movies and books depicting those times. Mindful of the innumerable mindless casualties typical of this era, a good Cold War-themed movie entails not just a movie-watching experience, but also some thought-provoking pointers in the mind of the audience.
Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
This 1964 Stanley Kubrick creation has far too many reasons to stand out in the gamut of Cold War movies. For one, it is basically a satire on the nuclear scare prevalent in those days, and draws more wistful laughs than one would expect from a movie in this genre. Besides that, there is the acclaimed Peter Sellers, who plays no less than three roles in the movie – that of a level-headed, patriotic RAF officer, the bald and academic President, and the eccentric, wheelchair-bound titular Dr. Strangelove. The plot still has a Jack Ryan-feel to it, though it is a hundred times more simplified and Dr. Strangelove is a sheer delight to watch simply because of the brilliant portrayals of the stereotypes – be it the crazed Brigadier General and his obsession with bodily fluids, or the melodramatic military advisor at the War Room or the cowboy Major commanding the patrol aircraft. As is the wont of any satire, there are layers in every statement made, and even the names of the characters are clues to their average disposition.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
The 1962 thriller is taut and unrelenting in its ability to draw and hold your attention; very much a tribute to the general atmosphere of the Cold War. The story does appear slightly far-fetched, but it fits in snugly with the numerous conspiracy theories that apparently abound the political and diplomatic circles. What stands out in The Manchurian Candidate is the shockingly cold-blooded portrayal of Mrs. Iselin by Angela Lansbury, which also garnered her with an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. There is also of course, Frank Sinatra, as the twitching, nervous and recently-clumsy captain Marco, who is only vaguely coming to his senses. The Manchurian Candidate is an ageless movie, and the blurred line it skirts between the fiction and the non-fiction, only lends it an added thrill.
The Hunt For Red October (1990)
This is possibly the best of all of Tom Clancy’s adventures of Jack Ryan (on screen at least). It is racy, it has an excellent, though slightly predictable story line (predictable mostly because Jack Ryan always seems to be stuck with the same problems – an enemy posing as an ally, or the other way round, Ryan always knows suspiciously more of the lifestyle of his subjects of interest, and nobody listens to him anyway; not until the dying minutes of the movie, at least) and it has one of the most remarkable opening sequences, beginning with the creased eyes of Sean Connery and fading into a cold, bleak, grey ocean, immediately catapulting the audience into the troubled and murky waters of espionage and trickery. A young Alec Baldwin was perfectly cast as the white collar intelligence analyst, and can be safely credited with setting the mood for Harrison Ford to take over in Patriot Games.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Now this one is the most recent in the list, and bears possibly the closest relation to the actual hang of things (or at least that’s what it feels like when you see the movie). Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is immaculately made, with a detailing so fine that you would be tempted to believe that such a cloak-and-dagger age is still active somewhere in the neighbourhood. It features the well-known George Smiley and his men, most of whom are not truly above suspicion. There is hardly any hint of action in the story, rather it moves at its own calculated pace, with plenty of pauses for cynicism, introspection, retrospection and the grey, dripping weather. This being basically a British film, Gary Oldman plays the dapper, ageing Smiley, along with a clutch of the great and the good – John Hurt, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones and several others. At a time, when fast cars and witty catchphrases rule the average spy-thrillers, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a movie frozen in time, encapsulating the flavour of tastelessness of the times gone by.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
Another John Le Carré adaptation (as was Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), this movie runs along the same veins of espionage and counter-espionage, and good men lost to obscure causes. The prize of the movie is Richard Burton, who plays the tight-lipped, disgruntled Alec Leamus and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor that year. It is always difficult to make a straight deal out of a John Le Carré story, certainly not in less than two hours, but The Spy Who Came in from the Cold does justice to the original story, chiefly narrated from Leamus’ point of view and embodying the double standards and hypocrisy of diplomatic relations. The clean dialogues, unmarred by heavy background scores as is so common in recent movies, only seems to amplify the starkness. The closing scene of the movie, though meant to induce grief, only acts as the most acceptable end to the predominantly bleak story.