This is among the most underrated thrillers I know of. I can’t help wondering if it’s because it was directed by a woman, Mimi Leder, who also did another film I liked a lot but no one else seemed to appreciate: Deep Impact. For my money, that one was miles above testosterone-fueled garbage like Independence Day. Or maybe my taste is just out of step with most people. Leder has mostly worked in television, but has a project in development that I’m interested in seeing: a remake of All Quiet on the Western Front. But back to this one … It is the most intelligent movie I’ve seen about that ultimate bogeyman, the nuclear weapon in the hands of a terrorist or madman … and even here, the bad guy isn’t the usual cliché. Aside from two scenes where the heroes outrun explosions—probably the worst of all the obligatory action crap we see over and over these days—the action is mostly believable. It begins with a great scene hijacking a train with the weapons. Next is a damn good car chase, and after that we get the most over-the-top sequence, a battle between helicopters and men in a truck. And to top it all off there is a harrowing wind-up with the backpack nuke on its way to the UN Building in New York. Both leads are good: Nicole Kidman as a physicist in way over her head operating in the “real” world,” and George Clooney as a Green Beret Colonel who rapidly brings her up to speed on the kind of things that must be done if the nuke is to be stopped. Everything moves way too fast for much romantic interest to develop, and maybe that’s why people didn’t respond. No chemistry. Personally, I’d prefer they be smart and work together and learn from each other … but that’s just me.
Remember MAD, Mutual Assured Destruction? Actually, it’s still pretty much around, as the US and Russia still have enough warheads to destroy each other. Thinking about nuclear war, or even the detonation of a single nuke, forces one to realize that there is no moral ground, there is no moral course of action, other than complete mutual disarmament, which isn’t going to happen. Every horror that has happened in the last century would be utterly eclipsed by the detonation of a 500 kiloton bomb in downtown Manhattan, or Moscow, or Tel Aviv, or Tehran, or Mumbai or Islamabad. Every horror. We’d have to open a whole new book of horrors. I don’t think most people realize that, or they if do, they prefer not to give it much thought.
There is a particularly horrific scene near the end of this movie (and maybe this is why people didn’t like it). They know what the bomber looks like and there are snipers on every rooftop. A sniper spots the guy … but his shot is blocked by a little girl sitting on her father’s shoulders. He won’t shoot. Nicole and George both are shouting at him to take the shot, take the shot … and he won’t shoot. Now analyze that situation logically. He must take the shot. Even if it’s only a backpack high explosive bomb packed with nails, it is not an imperative that he take the shot. Sure, she may still be killed, and dozens of people around her, but you can’t say he has to take the shot. With a nuke, everything changes. If you don’t take the shot, not only are she and her father going to be vaporized very soon, but several million other people as well.
That’s logic. What about morally? Well, I’ll tell you, any rational sense of morals that I’m aware of is pretty much a joke when it comes to a nuke. There is only one moral decision: Don’t make them, don’t use them. Ever, no matter what. But we’re already far beyond that and there’s no coming back that I can see. To my mind, the only moral thing you can do where nukes are concerned is to reduce their number, and try to make sure that nobody who doesn’t already have one ever gets one. Every nuke that is destroyed is a moral victory. Every country that is prevented from getting nukes is a moral victory. Sadly, the only country that has behaved morally here, that I’m aware of, is South Africa, which had nukes once upon a time and then renounced them. I’m impressed.
But there you are, on the roof, with a little girl in your sights and a man with a million deaths in his hands just behind her. What would you do? What would I do? Well, I can’t say what I would do (and I’m so grateful that I will never face this decision), but I’m pretty sure what I should do. Take the shot. Take the shot, and then blow my own head off, because I couldn’t live with it.