2022 Yearender: The blazing cold

Hani Mustafa , Tuesday 27 Dec 2022

Hani Mustafa reviews the cinematic history of the Cold War

Good Night and Good Luck
Good Night and Good Luck


The war that broke out last February between Russia and Ukraine has created a situation similar to the one that lasted for over four decades starting immediately after the end of World War II, when Harry Truman decided to support Western Europe against the Soviet tide in the East. This old tension, called the Cold War, ended after the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989.

One single memory that might be important in the recent conflict is when Vladimir Putin was a young KGB agent in East Germany, according to Western media outlets like the BBC, the Washington Post, the New York Post and History.com. In Dresden, Germany, in December 1989, a few weeks after the Berlin Wall had fallen, a few demonstrators were heading for the KGB office after attacking the Dresden headquarters of the East German secret police.

Putin was doing his service there then, and he threatened the crowd that his soldiers were armed, and they were authorised to use their weapons in an emergency. The situation remained a risk to him so he asked for more protection from a Red Army tank unit but the officer in charge said, “we cannot do anything without orders from Moscow… and Moscow is silent.” This scene feels like a factor that helped to shape today’s conflict. It might be history but it is ongoing regardless of the radical changes that occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This tension wasn’t only political but cultural too. Cinema not only reflected but also played a part in the political game as propaganda. It is well-known that most production companies in the United States were linked to the American authorities at the time, with only a few exceptions not involved in the propaganda mill. The vast majority were definitely controlled by politicians or intelligence entities. The history of cinema in the West was filled with these types of films in many genres including Cold War drama but mostly action films.

The creation of James Bond by writer Ian Fleming took place during this era. He invented the British secret intelligence agent 007 starting in 1953, and it hasn’t stopped appearing on the silver screen till today. Bond films are the longest narrative series continually produced in the history of cinema. It started in 1962 with Dr No directed by Terence Young and starring Sean Connery, and seemed to end with the 2021 No Time to Die, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and starring Daniel Craig, which features the death of 007, though this doesn’t necessarily mean that the main character will not appear in future productions.

Most of these films were commercial with a fair amount of action or suspense, but other art house filmmakers managed to avoid the framework of propaganda, infusing their vision with aesthetic elements and artistic depth. Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 landmark Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, for example, is widely seen as one of the most outstanding films to deal with political and military tension between the USSR and the US.

The film is a black comedy about the political term “nuclear deterrent”. Starring Peter Sellers in three different roles, among other Hollywood figures, Dr Strangelove tackles the absurd nuclear arms race which may lead to the extermination of humankind. Based on Peter George’s 1958 novel Red Alert, the filmmaker employs sarcasm especially when dealing with politicians and high-ranking military officers who hold the fate of the planet in their hands. Although it takes a nihilist approach, the filmmaker manages to illustrate his ideas in a hilarious way.

Not all Cold War films were produced during times of tension. In fact some of them were made after the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the reasons behind producing such films is creating a dramatic atmosphere in which political tension is one among several artistic elements employed to gripping or suspenseful effect. However, linking a film’s timing with the political context might suggest un-cinematic reasons behind the production.

In 2000 Roger Donaldson directed Thirteen Days starring Bruce Greenwood (as J F Kennedy) and Kevin Costner (as Kenneth O’Donnell, the presidential adviser). The film depicts the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is considered the peak of the Cold War and one of the most terrifying moments in modern human history. It happened when, under the rule of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, a few hundred kilometres away from Florida.

The film depicts the escalating situation between Russia and the United States and how the American administration dealt with it. Perhaps it was only a coincidence that the production should remind a worldwide audience of that terrifying moment the year Vladimir Putin comes to power in Moscow.

One of the most interesting productions about the Cold War is the 2017 comedy The Death of Stalin, directed by the British writer and filmmaker Armando Iannucci. It depicts the aftermath of the death of the leader of one of the 20th century’s two superpowers, Joseph Stalin, in 1953. The filmmaker manages to turn these crucial episodes into hilarious moments. The film opens with an introductory scene that draws an outline on the Russian Nation of Fear under the dictator. Then he mixes mockery with an absurd portrayal of the Soviet ruling elite’s reactions as they conspire to fill the resulting power vacuum.

A huge part of Cold War was the work of secret services, so much so that it became a war of spies. This proved tempting to producers and filmmakers, who created action stories with drama revolving around espionage.

One such interesting story was Steven Spielberg’s 2015 Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance (who won the Academy Award for best actor in a supporting role). The script was written by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers who, perhaps, gave the film great depth and a powerful dramatic structure.

The story is set towards the end of the 1950s when the American authorities arrest Rudolf Abel (Rylance) on suspicion of being a Soviet spy. The court assigns him a lawyer, James Donovan (Hanks). The film tells the detailed story not only of that lawyer’s ability to save the spy from the death penalty but also – in coordination with the CIA – to exchange him for an American CIA pilot captured by the Soviets at almost the same time. The plot was complicated as the lawyer was negotiating with two intelligence agencies at the same time: the East Germans and the Soviets.

A more recent spy film is Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), directed by Kenneth Branagh, who stars alongside Chris Pine and Kevin Costner. The film follows a young CIA financial analyst who discovers suspicious transactions in the stock exchange linked with Viktor Cherevin (Branagh), a Russian businessman. This is happening at the time of the film’s production, perhaps while the ousting of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and before the outbreak of the Crimean War in 2014 was causing tension between Russia and the West. The story is about an attempted terrorist and economic attack on the US that should happen simultaneously, organised and financed by Cherevin. The main character, who is a financial expert, is suddenly recruited as a field agent by a CIA senior officer named Thomas Harper (Costner) to prevent it.