In the last 50 years since the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred, some of us from Generation X and younger haven’t been able to truly comprehend the impact the event had on the world. But movies based on fact and some excellent documentaries in the last 40 years have helped those of us who didn’t live through it bring the impact of how close the world was to a true nuclear doomsday. Such an understanding of what a fork in the road it was for world history ultimately became the backdrop to one prominent movie set in the early 1960s.
That most recent example is “X Men: First Class”, which seemed to be a new beginning of superhero movies taking place in retro settings. It was also the first time we saw the Cuban Missile Crisis in film as background story with a revisionist superhero history existing at the forefront. It all sounds a little familiar to another pivotal moment in time depicted as a cinematic backdrop: Pearl Harbor.
With “X Men: First Class” bringing a fictional tale wrapped around the Cuban Missile Crisis, the movies may start considering the event as the forgotten what-if Pearl Harbor or 9/11. It may be the only place for movies to go in using the Cuban Missile Crisis without rehashing the pivotal events from the White House. We’ve already seen enough fair to good film depictions of President John F. Kennedy and his cabinet dealing with a situation no President wants to face.
How, though, does the event rank as a background story in movies? On a psychological basis, the inexorable fear extends to every human being on the planet who had access to the media. You can argue that it rivals Pearl Harbor and 9/11 based squarely on what people imagined was about to happen rather than coping with the reality. It’s enough reason for anybody using it in a movie to stay within facts and not bother with alternate scenarios.
The last time we saw a movie with the Cuban Missile Crisis as background was in the 1999 film “Blast from the Past”, starring Christopher Walken, Brendan Fraser, and Alice Silverstone. While this was a romantic comedy (with the idea of a family mistakenly staying in a nuclear shelter for 35 years), we were able to see what kind of creative ideas the event can bring. This film was also the only one to date managing to bring a sense of satire to one of America’s worst nightmares.
It’s time, though, for someone to make a true drama with the Cuban Missile Crisis at the core and away from the White House. Some might say “X Men: First Class” was enough of a drama to qualify, despite having too much tongue in cheek to be taken that way. We simply haven’t seen a movie yet that shows what the crisis did to average people in a way that’s believable.
As usual, only TV has done that with a 1991 episode of “Quantum Leap” and at the end of the second season to “Mad Men.” Yet in the movies, it doesn’t have to be strictly about the panicky reactions of average Americans and instead study the likely crazy things certain notables did to prepare for a nuclear winter.
Yes, even the Cuban Missile Crisis could easily be subjected to the “based on a true story” treatment to sustain a sense of entertainment.