Mick Broderick

The postwar period from 1945 has been labeled many things—the jet age, the television age, the space age—yet the most resilient nomenclature is that of the atomic age or nuclear era. Throughout the Cold War (1945-1991), American cinema produced a significant number of films that broached issues concerning the development, testing, and deployment of nuclear weapons, and their associated technologies.1 This essay considers a small but important number of films that challenge assumptions about the depiction of children as naive innocents or impotent victims of the atomic age.

Much of the scholarship on this body of film has recognized the importance of representations of children and adolescents in narratives concerning nuclear weapons and warfare. Most often the literature in relation to such films (Evans, Perrine, Henriksen, Newman, Shapiro) to varying degrees suggests that such fictional dramas engender a sense of fear, alienation, and/or resignation in these younger characters, who appear seemingly impotent in the face of national and global nuclear politics. However, drawing from close textual readings of key film sequences, I will demonstrate that a significant number of movies foreground active resistance to—if not subversion of—the Cold War consensus that seemingly inured postwar generations to expect nuclear war as imminent, predetermined, and survivable.2

I have argued elsewhere that the bulk of the nuclear film genre presents children as "innocents" and "victims" of the nuclear epoch.3 However, not all Cold War films depict children and adolescents as passive and devoid of narrative or political agency in relation to atomic affairs. While most nuclear movies eschew direct action by children in challenging the military-industrial complex and/or the political establishment's complicity in a spiraling arms race, some Cold War films do provide alternative representations, such as The Space Children (1958), Wild in the Sky (1972), WarGames (1983), Amazing Grace and Chuck (1986), The Manhattan Project: The Deadly Game (1986), Project X (1987), and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (l99l)-

Wild in the Sky, WarGames, Project X, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day each portray radical acts by youth that lead to an undermining or usurping of the defense industries and strategic postures that are premised upon both nuclear deterrence and the infrastructure that supports mutual assured destruction (M. A.D.). Strongly influenced by Dr. Strangelove (1963), the hippie comedy Wild in the Sky depicts a trio of adolescent draft-dodgers commandeering a nuclear armed B52. In an early scene, an air force base commander (played by Strangelove's Keenan Wynn) confirms rumors to his assembled staff ''that the men of S.A.C. are to be phased-out in favor of a completely automated system.'' As in WarGames and Terminator 2, a repeated fear in such films is the removal of human choice from the nuclear decision-making ''loop.'' This becomes a narrative trope that the ''wisdom'' of children and adolescents narratively seeks to redress. Produced at a time when the U.S. was still at war with North Vietnam and (secretly) bombing its Indo-Chinese neighbors, Wild in the Sky irreverently parodies U.S. military and political institutions. Facing imprisonment, and possibly death, the three juveniles decide to attack a major U.S. financial institution in order to halt the nation's war economy.4 When the plane is reported as deviating from its assigned course, fighters are sent to intercept it, and the crew reluctantly arms its two H-bombs. The president intervenes, interrupting his dune-buggy vacation (''I take one day off—one stinking day—and the whole country collapses'') and demands the teens return the B-52 to base. Recalling President Nixon's notorious invective and Vice President Agnew's assertion that antiwar protesters didn't get ''spanked'' enough as children, the president immediately begins a patronizing, insulting, and hostile rant: ''You think we like violence and war? You people want simple solutions to complicated problems and there are none''; he then derides the trio as ''adolescent twirps'' and ''punks.''5 Yet the solution is simple for one of hijackers, who suggests: ''All I'm going to do is take this bomb and drop it on Fort Knox. . . . You said so yourself— you can't run wars on credit cards.'' The threat of economic sabotage is too much for the president, who is left to holler ineffectually down the line as the hijackers obliterate the nation's federal gold reserve and fly off, unrepentant and unchallenged.

A decade after these counterculture, antiwar protesters are portrayed irradiating the nation's gold reserves, WarGames also shows the folly of re moving human choice from the nuclear command and control system. While playing ''global thermonuclear war'' over the Internet, David Lightman (Matthew Broderick), a teenage hacker in Seattle, accidentally activates a dormant military Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) program embedded within NORAD's defense system.6 The high school student uses a ''backdoor'' to enter the system and accidentally ''awakens'' Joshua, the strategic A.I. game program that ''mistakes'' young David for his creator, the officially deceased strategic games theorist Dr. Stephen Falken. Presented with a menu of games, which include poker and chess, through to conflicts involving weapons of mass destruction, David and his classmate Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) excitedly select ''global thermonuclear war,'' choosing to be the Russians in this two-player game, and joyfully deciding to ''nuke'' Las Vegas and Seattle, unaware that this ''game'' immediately launches the attack alert at NORAD's early warning and missile command. It raises the DEFCON status and initiates automated preparations for an American ICBM counterstrike. The alert is eventually recognized as a simulation, and the threat vanishes from the NORAD control screen the instant David unplugs his computer. But Joshua regains contact with David and continues the countdown to the thermonuclear war game's conclusion, which once again initiates a phantom attack on the U.S. and prepares for a counterstrike. To avoid war and the scientific nihilism and fatalistic responses that Falken and the military adhere to, David has to teach ''Joshua'' the futility of war, long after his elders have resigned themselves to oblivion by abrogating their responsibilities to an advanced computer program.

Three years later, as airman Jimmy Garrett in Project X, Matthew Broderick once again is portrayed clashing with the military-scientific establishment. A probationary air force flier demoted to animal handler on an air base in Florida, Garrett risks court martial for insubordination by undermining his superiors' secret nuclear project before a group of congressional visitors. After refusing to transport his chimp into a reactor room, the airman interrupts the scheduled demonstration and reveals a key methodological fallacy in conducting ''human reliability'' studies using chimps to assess whether pilots can complete their missions after exposure to lethal amounts of ionizing radiation in simulated nuclear attacks. Later, when removed from the base for his outburst and failure to comply with commands, he joins a young researcher who has previously trained one of the chimps (named Virgil) to communicate by sign language. Together the pair arrange for the simians to escape to the Everglades. Despite enormous personal risk (jail, accidental irradiation, threatened use of deadly force by military police), Garrett's principled actions in Project X demonstrate the passion of youth to counter mand orders that are perceived as illogical and/or immoral, while adults un-questioningly, or grudgingly, obey. Garrett's public refusal to carry out direct orders, whether from the chief research scientist or base commander, is also portrayed as potentially seditious when at least one other air force animal handler is shown deliberately ignoring a command to transfer a chimp for irradiation. Just as teenage David Lightman in WarGames is depicted teaching his elders (scientists, politicians, and soldiers) and the Pentagon's A.I. program the folly of playing ''global thermonuclear war,'' in Project X Jimmy Garrett consciously rejects the chain of command, military duty, national security, and personal safety to liberate a group of test subjects from spurious research conducted in the name of ensuring Mutual Assured Destruction.

These three film scenarios are predicated upon the threat of nuclear war as an instrument of the state somehow being usurped by youth who undermine the logics and/or apparatus of the military-industrial complex. As the final film of the Cold War period to depict children actively subverting the institutions complicit in weapons of mass destruction production, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a nuanced and considered sequel to the original 1984 feature. The epistemology of the Terminator films is dependent upon a nuclear war having already occurred. Narratively, it is a fait accompli. Hence, T2 opens with Sarah Connor's narration: ''Three billion human lives ended on August 29, 1997. The survivors of the nuclear fire called the war Judgment Day . . .'' Yet the dramatic conceit of the movie is one articulated by several characters: ''The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.'' It is this potential for radical intervention that marks T2 as prophetic eschatology, as opposed to a predetermined apocalyptic theology where the future is immutable and divinely ordained. Human agency, according to this narrative, can alter the trajectory of history (even retroactively). In the devastated ruins of Los Angeles in 2029, Sarah Connor's son John is a resistance leader fighting a guerilla war against the A.I. machines (Skynet) that control the postnuclear world. From the future, John Connor sends emissaries back in time to prevent ''terminators'' from killing his mother and himself. In (contemporary) 1991, we find 12-year-old John playing Missile Command at a video arcade, fighting off enemy ICBMs that MIRV and stream toward him. Trained by his mother to be self-sufficient as a future ''great military leader,'' he's already an accomplished petty thief, using a portable credit card PIN reader to access automatic teller machines for cash. Together with his mother, a reprogrammed T-800 terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and computer scientist Myles Dyson, John works to destroy the advanced secret technology at Cyberdyne Systems that will even-

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