1. Special Bulletin (1983)
The TV movie Special Bulletin, directed by Edward Zwick and written by Marshall Herskovitz—the team soon to create Thirtysomething and other shows—attracted a lot of attention before it even aired on NBC thanks to its unusual format: Presented as a news broadcast, it portrays a terrorist incident in Charleston, South Carolina as reported by a local news station. But it also attracted attention due to its subject matter: the idea that the United States might face an attack within its borders. That’s a theme that has reappeared in film and television throughout the decades and taken on many forms, many of them paranoid and/or patriotic. Beginning with a battle between the Coast Guard and a tugboat hijacked by anti-nuclear activists ready to take extreme measures to make their point, the conflict escalates as the film progresses until there’s not much of Charleston left by the film’s end. NBC placed disclaimers at the beginning and end of each commercial break to ensure that no War Of The Worlds-style panic ensued. Still, many mockumentaries and found-footage films later, the violent film remains effective because Zwick and Herskovitz remain so committed to the faux news format. Years later, Zwick portrayed the aftermath of another terrorist attack in the 1998 film The Siege (see below) before reality removed such incidents from the realm of fantasy.
2. Red Dawn (1984)
Few knew the Cold War would soon enter its death throes when Red Dawn hit theaters in 1984, and it’s a testament to just how pitched the tension had gotten in the early ’80s between America and what Ronald Reagan dubbed the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union that Red Dawn wasn’t treated as a laughable paranoid fantasy. Set in an America made vulnerable to Soviet invasion by the collapse of NATO and a communist coup in Mexico, the film focuses tightly on a handful of teen guerillas who take arms against their Red would-be overlords. Dubbing themselves The Wolverines, after their Colorado high-school mascot, a clutch of young ’80s stars (Patrick Swayze, Lea Thompson, Charlie Sheen, Jennifer Grey, and more) encounter drive-ins converted to “re-education camps” and other horrors as they fight, and sometimes die, for freedom. Let others give up their guns and subscribe to Pravda. These kids have other plans. Wolveriiiiiiiines!
3. Amerika (1987)
Lest anyone think that American political discourse was any less messed-up 30 years ago than it is today, let it be remembered that there was a time during the Reagan administration when many people insisted that it was unnecessarily divisive and partisan to suggest that life after a nuclear holocaust might suck. This 14-and-a-half-hour miniseries depicting an America under Soviet occupation was ABC’s way of answering charges from conservatives that the 1983 TV movie The Day After, set in Kansas and Missouri before and after the bombs fall, would soften viewers’ willingness to do whatever it took to stand up to the Red Menace. Released at the height of an international pro-disarmament movement and widespread nuclear jitters, The Day After was a big hit. Amerika, which was broadcast early in a year that began with Reagan mired in the Iran-Contra scandal and ended with him practically making out with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on TV, was much less successful, in spite of attempts by conservatives to make the bloated, lifeless series seem controversial by complaining that the Russian characters—such as a KGB colonel played by Sam Neill—were too nice.
4. Arlington Road (1999)
This corkscrew thriller was conceived at a time when America’s greatest threats seemed to come from within, courtesy of violent homegrown crazies. Jeff Bridges plays a history professor with a special interest in domestic terrorism, whose wife, an FBI agent, was killed during a standoff reminiscent of the Ruby Ridge incident. When Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack move into his suburban neighborhood, it’s as if his paranoid fears have taken physical form; they’re so creepy in their seemingly all-American ordinariness that they might have emerged from pods. They are, in fact, terrorists with a grudge against the U.S. government who are in the habit of blowing up federal buildings and framing innocent people for their crimes. Bridges puts all this together and sets out to foil their plans, only to wind up their latest patsy, and a martyr to the anti-government.
5. Black Sunday (1977)
This epic thriller, directed by John Frankenheimer and based on a pre-Hannibal Lecter novel by Thomas Harris, dates from a moment when the 1976 Entebbe rescue mission made members of the Israeli security forces seem like the most heroically dashing people on Earth. Robert Shaw, in what may have been the highlight of his post-Jaws fling as an action hero, plays a Mossad agent trying to connect the dots in anticipation of a terrorist attack on America: Members of the Palestinian group Black September are planning to detonate a bomb aboard the Goodyear Blimp and take out the crowd at the Super Bowl. They are in cahoots with blimp pilot Bruce Dern, a Vietnam vet and former prisoner of war who is so embittered that he can’t wait to vaporize hundreds of football fans as they’re cheering and scarfing down hot dogs. This movie was made at the very tail end of a pre-Coming Home/Rambo period when characters who had been in ’Nam were most likely high-strung, dangerous psychotics.
6. From Here To Eternity (1953)
Fred Zinnemann’s movie version of James Jones’ landmark bestseller is both a sexy-romantic, action-filled night at the movies and a scabrous, unsettling vision of the ugliness of life in the peacetime army. With nothing better to do, the men cooped up together at Fort Shafter in Hawaii needle and harass and jerk each other around, using surrogate bullies and office politics if they’re in a position of power, and their own fists and whatever weapons come to hand if they’re not. This idyllic existence comes to an end with the arrival of the Japanese bombers on December 7, 1941, but here, a necessary explosion sets things right by dividing the men from the paper pushers and allowing the soldiers to get back to doing what soldiers are meant to do. Amid the chaos, the strong, natural leader (Burt Lancaster) among them rises to his rightful place, while the noble but doomed hardhead (Montgomery Clift) is finally, at least, put out of his misery.
7. The Peacemaker (1997)
The horrors of war and “ethnic cleansing” in the fractious Balkans in the aftermath of the Cold War was one of the major geopolitical issues of the ’90s. It was a situation that Hollywood barely took notice of, though it pokes its head a few inches out of the sand in the first film released from the much-ballyhooed DreamWorks company. George Clooney and Nicole Kidman are tasked with preventing a Bosnian Serb diplomat from setting off a nuclear bomb at the United Nations headquarters in New York. In the end, the bomb does go off, but Clooney and Kidman are able to isolate the radioactive element and contain the explosion, and they and the rest of New York are just fine. The diplomat, whose family has been slaughtered in the war, has turned terrorist because he blames the West for what is happening in his homeland and believes America to be callously indifferent to real-world suffering. The existence of movies like this does nothing to disprove his point.
8. “Red Nightmare” (1962)
This half-hour short from the Department of Defense, co-produced and narrated by Jack Webb and directed by George Waggner (best known for 1941’s The Wolf Man) is the Reefer Madness of Cold War-invasion paranoia. Jack Kelly, best remembered as the guy on Maverick who wasn’t James Garner, plays a typical American husband and dad, who has grown complacent enough to boast of his plans to blow off Army Reserve training, before turning in for the night. He wakes up to find that the Red Army has taken over the town. His boss works him like a dog, his kids have to go to State Commie school, and the local church has been turned into a goddamn museum, which is full of misinformation on the achievements of godless socialism. Kelly can’t take it anymore and speaks up about the loss of his rights, whereupon he is put through a show trial and shot dead by Peter Breck from The Big Valley. It was, of course, all just a dream.
9. The Sum Of All Fears (2002)
This was the fourth film made from one of Tom Clancy’s potboilers about CIA super-analyst Jack Ryan (with Ben Affleck stepping in to replace Harrison Ford, who had earlier stepped in to replace Alec Baldwin). The book came out in 1991, but the movie offers a timely, if not prophetic message about just how slippery and elusive WMDs can turn out to be. The action begins in 1973, when a nuclear bomb gets mislaid during the Yom Kippur War. Almost 30 years later, it turns up in the possession of some scrap dealers, and ends up being sold to the neo-Nazi Dressler (Alan Bates). Dressler, who hates both the East and West, decides to instigate World War III by detonating his prize at a football game in Baltimore, with the president of the United States in attendance. He assumes that the Pentagon will blame the Russians and commence with the end of the world. The bomb does go off as planned, but the president narrowly escapes with his life, for all the good that does Baltimore. With Jack Ryan’s help, the truth is discovered, war is averted, and Dressler is killed by a car bomb, which serves him right.
10. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
This expensive labor of love from 20th Century Fox president Darryl F. Zanuck is a painstakingly “realistic” depiction of the attack on Pearl Harbor, neatly divided between scenes showing how that day was experienced by the Americans, and scenes showing it from the point of view of the Japanese. Zanuck decreed that the film should be cast with character actors not known for their ability to carry a movie—Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, James Whitmore, Wesley Addy, Neville Brand, etc.—so that audiences would not be distracted from the steady drumbeat of realistic detail by any untoward shows of charisma, and he hired Richard Fleischer, who had as good a claim to being the Wesley Addy of studio directors as anyone, to take charge of the American scenes. To shoot the Japanese section, Fox hired Akira Kurosawa, presumably because he was the only Japanese director Zanuck had ever heard of; Kurosawa spent two years preparing his half of the film, only to be fired after two weeks of shooting. The movie was hailed upon release as bedrock proof of the death of the studio state and helped lead to Zanuck’s ouster a year later.
11. United 93 (2006)
Former journalist Paul Greengrass, who attracted attention with the documentary look and feel of Bloody Sunday, his 2002 film about the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972, was assigned the job of handling the inevitable big-screen docudrama about the events aboard United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001. The film, which incorporates some actual airline employees who were on hand that day, along with a cast of mostly unknowns, uses improvised dialogue and handheld camerawork to achieve an uncanny sense of real history taking place. It proved too real, too soon, for some viewers. Not only did some observers wonder if such a project was necessary, no matter how well it was made, but at least one New York theater decided to stop showing trailers for it after audience members objected.
12. World Trade Center (2006)
The second big Hollywood movie about the events of 9/11 had a slightly higher profile than United 93, which came out a few months earlier. The news that Oliver Stone would be making a movie about the collapse of the Twin Towers automatically set off fits of agita and worse from those who feared a return to the wild-eyed conspiracy-mongering of JFK, but Stone directed with his responsible-citizen hat on. The heroes are Port Authority policemen (played by Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña) who were rescued after being buried in the rubble on that fateful day, and the movie itself is doggedly apolitical: Its only message is that guys who risk their lives to try to save people in trouble are all right, and well deserving of being saved in turn. The only controversial aspect is the depiction of Dave Karnes, a Marine sergeant who, after seeing the news of the attacks, goes to pray in a church, gets a military regulation haircut and dons his uniform, and then heads for the WTC site to see what assistance he can provide. This prayerful, patriotic man is heroic but also a little weird and creepy, though that may just be an inevitable side product of being played by Michael Shannon.
13. Mars Attacks! (1996)
Tim Burton’s gleefully destructive Mars Attacks! was based on goofy trading cards that were popular well before the director’s time, and he took that camp silliness and stretched it almost to its breaking point. In the movie, Martians lay waste to targets around the globe, but take particular delight in destroying the Washington Monument and Mount Rushmore. They even walk (or sorta slink) right into Congress and kill pretty much everybody. If that’s not the heart of American soil, what is?
14. The Siege (1998)
Edward Zwick’s 1998 war-on-terror film was probably the first to introduce Americans to the idea of “terror cells”—those sneaky, connected-but-not-connected groups that wreak havoc on civilians and then disappear. In the movie, Denzel Washington and his partner Tony Shalhoub play FBI agents that are generally a step behind the terror cells, and always racing to catch up. Before they do—with the help of a sexy CIA agent played by Annette Bening—a lot of stuff gets blowed up, including a theater and the New York office of the FBI. Though it ends a little neatly, The Siege is mostly compelling, reasonably smart, and fairly action-packed. Also: Denzel.
15. 1941 (1979)
In the ’70s, a pair of snotty film-school brats named Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale dreamed up a killer idea for an epic satirical comedy: What if a Japanese submarine washed up in Southern California in 1941 and inspired panic among civilians and the military alike? Steven Spielberg, who went on to produce Back To The Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit for Zemeckis, signed on as director and assembled an overstuffed cast that joined the hot, young comic actors of the day (most notably the red-hot John Belushi from Saturday Night Live and SCTV’s John Candy) with legends of the field like Robert Stack, Christopher Lee, Warren Oates, and Toshiro Mifune. 1941 is ultimately less about the prospect of a foreign attack on American soil—needless to say, the Japanese submarine crew never gets very far, literally or metaphorically—than the surreal absurdity of groupthink and mob mentality. The panicked populace and freaked-out military end up doing far more damage to their own country than the confused and overwhelmed Japanese can manage.
16. Invasion U.S.A. (1985)
In the Cold War kitschfest Invasion U.S.A., an international aggregation of weapon-toting bad guys descends upon the United States smack dab in the middle of the Reagan decade. Their agenda is to spread chaos, anarchy, and discord by dramatically blowing up school buses, church services, Christmas Tree decorating parties, and worst of all, malls, in their attempts to destroy the very foundations of American democracy. They made a big-ass mistake, though, in invading the home country of one Chuck Norris, who squints and scowls as he eliminates the foreign threat with extreme prejudice and a variety of high-powered weapons (because of something called the Second Amendment, buster!). With a one-man army like that around, who needs some stupid military?
17. Pearl Harbor (2001)
Flyboy buddies Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett attack the foreign soil of Kate Beckinsale’s heart in Pearl Harbor, and while they’re doing that, the Japanese are blowing up a bunch of stuff in the background. Michael Bay’s infamous epic about our “day that will live in infamy” works overtime to blunt the historic agonies of December 7, 1941, when a surprise attack on a U.S. naval base in Hawaii left 2,400 Americans dead and made target practice out of sitting ships and aircraft. Instead, he plays up the rah-rah heroism of the men who limited the damage with their bravery and does little to distinguish between a real-life tragedy and the pyrotechnics of other Bay films like The Rock and Armageddon. He also sinks himself into a love triangle of hilarious vapidity, perhaps as a spoonful of sugar to make the empire-wounding medicine go down.
18. Independence Day (1996)
The idea behind Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day is pretty simple: Aliens come to Earth, hover around a little while, then start destroying everything in sight. So this isn’t just an invasion on American soil, it’s an invasion on the entire planet’s soil. But, oh what a spectacular mess they make of the U.S.! The massive alien ships have such powerful beams that one shot blows up the Empire State Building like it’s made of Tinkertoys, sending a huge fireball down the streets of midtown Manhattan. But the most spectacular destruction is when those damn aliens blow up the White House. What more American a symbol could they have picked? Emmerich manages to somehow make it look like the real White House—not a small structure, by any means—is reduced to rubble as if it were a cottage with a gas leak. Fortunately for Earth, Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, a laptop, and a primitive ’90s-era computer virus is all it takes to bring down those super-advanced bad guys and save mankind as we know it.