Setting the Stage with Movies: Cold War

To me, one of the coolest aspects of teaching a contemporary history course is the abundance of media available to aid instruction.

This year one of my goals is to explore options for incorporating popular culture movies, both as an engaging way to “hook” students, and just as important, a means to help them develop insight on, and empathy with people in the past. In particular, movies can reveal the prevailing fears or concerns of society in certain time or place.

As I am learning…picking the right movie clip can be challenging. It needs to be the right length (3-10 minutes-ish) and readily available – preferably free (YouTube is your friend). It should be fun and engaging. Of course it needs to be appropriate in terms of content and language. And finally, students should be able to “get it” with a minimum of context about the movie or the related historical events.

Of course, when considering a topic like the Cold War, it is always useful to consider such classics as Duck and Cover and Atomic Alert. The main problem though, is that they are too campy and preachy (and boring…). Admit it, we really only show them to get a laugh out of the students. They are important artifacts, but they aren’t hooks…don’t lead with them.

Here are some clips that I’ve found that I think can do a much better job.


The Second Red Scare  – The Enemy Within

The second Red Scare refers to the period in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s (the first one was in the 1920’s after the Russian Revolution). There were legitimate reasons to be afraid. The Communist threat abroad was tangible. The Iron Curtain had descended upon Europe, China went Red, and the Russkies got the bomb all in just a few years. But what about Communism here? In America? Who could we trust…more importantly who couldn’t we trust?

The hook: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Aliens secretly land on Earth and kidnap people while they are sleeping. The victims are cloned in giant pods (hence the term pod people) and are transformed into something else.  They look and sound exactly the same, but they are no longer human.

Questions for discussion:

1. What is he trying to tell everyone?

2. Why doesn’t anyone believe him?

3. How can this clip represent people’s fears about the Communism during the Red Scare?


Nuclear Weapons – Mutually Assured Destruction

We cannot consider the Cold War without examining the politics of nuclear weapons. The name Cold War itself refers to the idea that, at all costs, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. had to avoid a direct engagement for fear of literally ending the world in a nuclear holocaust. Soviet spies acquired the secrets of nuclear technology as early as 1949, and from that point the competition was on to build bigger and better stockpiles of weapons. For example, the space race was, in many ways, simply about demonstrating our technical prowess in rocketry…to be able to deliver nuclear weapons anywhere in the world. Eventually the powers that be settled on the insanely pragmatic policy of mutually assured destruction. That is, we actually needed to increase nuclear proliferation to ensure that no country could use a nuclear weapon with guaranteeing their own immediate destruction.

The hook: War Games (1983) Matthew Broderick is a precoscious teenage computer hacker who bites off more than he can chew when he starts playing a nuclear war simulation with the Department of Defense mainframe. Hilarity ensures when the computer program doesn’t tell the Army that it’s just playing a game. Even better…the computer doesn’t think it’s playing a game.


Questions for discussion:

1. Why can’t the computer win?

2. How can this clip represent people’s feelings about nuclear weapons?


Winning Hearts and Minds – The Propaganda War

The Cold War was also about prestige and morale. If we couldn’t fight the Russians directly with bombs and bullets, then we had to fight them any other way we could. It wasn’t just about being the best, it was about being perceived as being the best.

The Hook: Rocky IV (1985) Rocky fights a seemingly indestructible Russian foe (Spoiler alert: Rocky wins).


The fight is great on it’s own, but Rocky’s speech afterward is the icing on the cake.


Questions for discussion:

1. As the viewer, how are you supposed to feel about Rocky? Ivan Drago? Did your perceptions of Rocky or Ivan change over time? Why?

2. Why do you think the crowd started to cheer for Rocky? How do you think you are supposed to feel when the crowd cheers for Rocky?

3. How can this clip represent people’s feelings about the Cold War?


That’s all I have so far, but if you have any other suggestions….please please please leave them in the comments.