Nuclear Weapons in Film

How Hollywood gets it wrong (and sometimes right)

As with plenty of subjects, motion pictures are sloppy with the subject of nuclear weapons. The physics involved is often portrayed incorrectly, and the military and policy aspects are also generally poorly treated. So here are some examples of the mistakes they make.

Besides being nitpicky, are these mistakes worth mentioning? Yes, for two reasons: first, this subject is handled inaccurately more often than not; and second, it is one where many viewers have little accurate prior knowledge. Consequently, many viewers may derive or reinforce misconceptions. This happens with regard to other subjects, such as science and (with more frequency) history. For online discussion of other subjects in film, see examples at Bad Astronomy and Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics.

Before addressing some particular movies, here are some general problem areas:

  • Magnitude of destructive effects: The extent of destruction is usually exaggerated, and sometimes by many orders of magnitude.
  • Nature of destructive effects: The different effects of nuclear explosions are often confused. Atmospheric explosions produce flash (intense light causing thermal damage), blast (destructive shock wave radiating mostly at the speed of sound), and prompt radiation (biologically injurious radiation which causes generally delayed effects). These effects are often confused with one another, particularly the flash and prompt radiation.
  • Effects of radiation: This is so misunderstood as to merit special attention. Large doses of radiation in a short period of time can cause radiation sickness and other potentially fatal effects. Smaller doses of radiation (or large doses spread over a long period of time) can cause such effects as sterility (temporary or permanent), birth defects in subsequent generations, and cancer. Radiation induced mutations or birth defects may occur in offspring.
  • Policies regarding nuclear weapons: These criticisms are of a different nature. Whereas the previous objections are scientific errors, many errors involve misrepresentation of the military and political policies and decision making regarding nuclear weapons deployment, use, etc. While fictional movies (particularly science fiction) have considerable latitude in depicting such things, many movies do present themselves as portraying current or historical policies but make significant errors. Some of this is clearly related to the overall negative portrayal of the military by Hollywood.

In addressing specific movies, they are divided into two categories: more serious and less serious. This is an attempt to differentiate between the extremes of serious historical portrayals and playful science fiction stories. (Warning: these reviews contain spoilers!)

More seriousLess serious
Broken Arrow
The Hunt for Red October
The Sum of All Fears
Thirteen Days
True Lies
Doctor Strangelove
Star Trek: First Contact
The Time Machine

Copyright © 2002 by Wm. Robert Johnston. All rights reserved.
Last modified 23 June 2002.
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