Sure, The Man From UNCLE makes the Cold War era look like a particularly exciting time of human history to have lived through, from the fashions to the femme fatales and impossibly square jaw of leading man Henry Cavill (Seriously, science should investigate quite how handsome that man is). Five decades on from its heyday, however — and two decades on from its collapse — it’s possible that you might need a refresher on everything to do with the subject. From the admittedly-biased annals of Netflix’s virtual vaults, then, consider this an important (and potentially misleading) history lesson.
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951)
What can this sci-fi classic tell us about the Cold War? Well, beyond the initial paranoia that of course alien technology probably has its origins with those darn Reds, there’s the sad fact that it would moviemakers believed that it would take nothing less than extra-terrestrial intervention to end the Cold War. (Not that it actually does, for sure, in the end.)
FIVE STEPS TO DANGER (1957)
If theres a moral to this classic thriller, it’s that you should never pick up any beautiful hitchhikers in case they turn out to lead you into international intrigue and adventure, as well as conflict with those pesky communists out for their own good. But on the plus side, it might lead to romance and marriage, so there’s that.
ROCKY IV (1985)
By the 1980s, the Cold War had been around for long enough that America had moved from terror of the enemy to machismo aimed at undercutting their collective egos. Take, for example, this classic sports movie — at least in the top 5 Rocky movies, maybe the 6th best when Creed comes out — where America, as personified by Sly Stallone, literally beats the hell out of Russia, in the guise of (the entirely-not-Russian) Dolph Lundgren. Altgether now: U.S.A.! U.S.A.!
TOP GUN (1986)
A year later, Tom Cruise’s big break came in this equally macho piece of nonsense that looks at the complicated matter of ariel superiority between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and quickly decides that Cruise and Val Kilmer are so superior that their only true competition is each other. The kind of movie that might have you wondering whether the Cold War was really just something the U.S. did out of kindness to keep the U.S.S.R.’s confidence up.
THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990)
Of course, there was that whole “specter of nuclear annihilation” deal that kind of put a dampener on things although, as this movie demonstrates, actors on both sides wanted to stay away from such an event. And when I say “actors,” I mean, “let’s not focus on Sean Connery making cinema’s least convincing Russian, because to do so would be rude.”
RED HOLLYWOOD (1996)
The Cold War wasn’t just about the potential end of the world, though; there was also a cultural side, which this documentary — which includes footage from movies blacklisted due to concerns that their directors were communist sympathizers — illustrates with chilling ease.
K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER (2002)
Another Soviet submarine movie — this one based on real life, which may seem increasingly surprising as you watch — and another case of a recognizable action star making a ham-fisted attempt at playing Russian. This time, it’s Harrison Ford, who… well, he plays Harrison Ford, let’s be honest. At least Liam Neeson, who plays Ford’s sidekick, tries a little. (Just a little; it is Liam Neeson after all.)
CROSSING THE LINE (2006)
One of the greatest sins, it seemed, during the Cold War, was to defect — and this documentary follows the experience of one U.S. soldier who, in 1962, did that very thing, choosing to leave his homeland for North Korea. The movie talks to the soldier 40 years later, as well as others who also defected to North Korea at the same time. Apparently, Pyongyang was the place to be in 1962. Who knew?
TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY (2011)
One of the classics of the modern spy genre, Tinker, Tailor uses the talents of a number of familiar faces — Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy — to bring John Le Carre’s most well-known novels to life, in the process making mid-‘70s UK feel far more realistic than anyone who was actually around in that era would feel comfortable knowing. It doesn’t really get better than this.
The Cold War went further than just the U.S., U.K. and Soviet Union, of course, and this wonderful German movie — which explores life in East Germany in 1980, with the title character a woman who’s tried (and failed) to leave the state on more than one occasion — perfectly captures the feel of what it was like in other Communist countries during the era. Sensitive, beautiful and well worth watching.