18 Underrated Movies About The Cold War

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Vote up the most underappreciated Cold War movies.

The Cold War lasted an astonishing 45 years. It began in 1947 with the defeat of Axis powers in WWII and ended in 1991 with the destruction of the Berlin Wall. In between all that was a series of complex, tenuous interactions between the United States and Russia. The two countries never engaged in direct combat. The Cold War was carried out via threats, intimidation, espionage, and other means. 

Although it was a scary time to be alive, given the pervasive potential for nuclear war, those decades inspired some great art, including movies and TV dramas. The following underrated films all use the Cold War as the setting for their stories. In various genres - from drama, to comedy, to romance - they take viewers inside that turbulent time, often paying great attention to realistic details. Cinema has always reflected what's happening in the real world, and these movies help paint a portrait of what the Cold War was all about.

  • 1
    16 VOTES

    Several movies about the Cold War envision something accidentally tipping the situation over into full-on war. The 1964 film Fail Safe was one of the first. Henry Fonda plays the president of the United States, and he's got a big problem on his hands. A message instructing fighter pilots to drop bombs on Russia has been mistakenly transmitted. He has to scramble to rectify this situation before it's too late, knowing that if the devices are dropped, Russia will certainly retaliate.

    Directed by the legendary Sidney Lumet, Fail Safe exploited the tensions of its time by forcing audiences to imagine a worst-case scenario. Even removed from the 1960s, it's a tense story about the race to prevent nuclear annihilation - one that emphasizes the tenuous relations between the US and Russia. As a bonus, you get the perfect casting of Fonda as the commander-in-chief.

  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a 2011 adaptation of John le Carré's best-selling novel, features Gary Oldman as George Smiley, a retired British intelligence agent brought back into the fold to help identify a double agent who is working for the Soviets. It is suspected that the guilty party is one of four high-ranking intelligence officials. What he finds threatens to blow the lid off “the Circus.”

    With an ensemble cast that includes Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, and John Hurt, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a showcase for some great British actors. The plot is complex, which ensures you'll be paying rapt attention. As conceived by le Carré, the plot dives into how devastating a spy in the ranks could be. Watching Smiley figure it all out provides intelligent entertainment. 

  • John Frankenheimer's Seven Days in May (1964) finds US President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) taking a bold step toward ending the Cold War. He signs a disarmament treaty with Russia, promising to decrease the number of active American nuclear weapons. That decision doesn't sit well with General James Scott (Burt Lancaster), who thinks the US should show no willingness to compromise. When he plans a coup against the president, his aide, "Jiggs" Casey (Kirk Douglas), gets wind of that plan and warns the commander-in-chief.

    The power struggle between Lyman and Scott is at the center of Seven Days in May. The screenplay, which was co-written by Rod Serling, plays up the danger this unstable situation creates. At the same time, you get a thoughtful analysis of the debate over whether tensions between countries are best solved by capitulation or intimidation. As for the acting, you've got Lancaster and Douglas, so it's typically first-rate.

  • 4
    14 VOTES

    Crimson Tide (1995) explores the back-and-forth that partially defined the Cold War, which is to say the debate over how aggressively America should act toward Russia. Capt. Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman) is in charge of a submarine and believes the best defense is a good offense. Lt. Cmdr. Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington) thinks Ramsey's attitude is more likely to ignite tensions than to quell them. He therefore leads a mutiny against the captain.

    The dynamic between Hackman and Washington is every bit as explosive as movie fans could want. Watching these two powerhouse actors go toe-to-toe is consistently captivating. Director Tony Scott provides a taut pace that highlights the conflicting viewpoints of the two leads. Crimson Tide is equal parts provocative and thrilling.

  • 5
    21 VOTES

    Of course Clint Eastwood made a Cold War thriller. How could he not? 1982's Firefox cast him as pilot Mitchell Gant. He's assigned to carry out a special mission that entails sneaking into the Soviet Union to steal a high-tech Russian fighter plane. Once he accomplishes that, he's got to dogfight his way back to the States.

    Many of Eastwood's action pictures involve him using guns, so Firefox puts a twist on what audiences expect by giving him something more high-powered. The flying sequences are good for their day, and the star makes excellent use of his laconic tough-guy persona. Despite the big Cold War setting, the movie is designed mostly as escapist entertainment, and on that level, it provides a suitably fun time. 

  • 6
    16 VOTES

    When it was released in 1983, WarGames helped to explain the threat of the Cold War to its youthful target audience. Matthew Broderick plays David Lightman, a high school student with a knack for computer hacking. He taps into the military's system, inadvertently launching a “game” called Global Thermonuclear War that causes US defense systems to activate and prepare for a nuclear attack on Russia. 

    The idea of a teenager nearly provoking WWIII was sufficiently tense to make WarGames a hit. But the movie also conveyed the tentative nature of US-Russian relationships at the time. The movie shows how suspicion and mistrust were so high that any little thing could have potentially accelerated the conflict to a tragic place. Broderick is excellent in the film, as is Ally Sheedy as David's girlfriend. An anti-war theme becomes clear at the end, adding emotional weight.