What to watch

A nuclear movie buff recommends four films—including (no surprise!) ‘Oppenheimer.’

By Ian Laird | April 2, 2024

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Los Alamos engineer Drew Kornreich discusses four movies about nuclear issues.

Drew Kornreich, an engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory, kicks off his popular “Weapons 101” class with a slide that lists several dozen movies about nuclear issues. “The nature of the films’ applications of nuclear weapons and related issues is widely varying,” he says, “from the fantastical, where nuclear weapons are simply a means to motivate the story—think 1950s monster films—to downright depressing—films that attempt to seriously display the aftermath of a large-scale nuclear exchange.”

Kornreich, who is part of the Lab’s Weapons Production associate directorate, sat down to discuss four of his favorites. He shares them here, in his own words:

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

This 1964 film touches on the intricate nature of deterrence. A rogue base commander orders a bomber squadron to independently strike the Soviet Union with nuclear bombs to intentionally start a nuclear war. The U.S. government attempts to foil his plan. 

The psychology of deterrence is showcased when an Air Force general advocates for a first strike to disable the Soviet Union before the rogue bombers deliver their weapons. A first strike would prevent the Soviet Union from launching a massive retaliatory strike (per the doctrine of mutually assured destruction). The president, naturally, is averse to this plan, noting that he does not want to “go down in history as the greatest mass murderer since Adolf Hitler!” In this instance, the president is functionally deterred by his own nuclear weapons and the moral implications of using them for military aggression.

Fail Safe

Fail Safe (the 1964 version and the 2000 CBS network version, both of which are star-packed) addresses essentially the same topics as Dr. Strangelove. The movies are based on different books that are so similar that copyright infringement lawsuits were filed and settled out of court. Functionally, the key difference is that Fail Safe is a serious drama while Dr. Strangelove is a dark satire. If you are going to watch these movies, watch Fail Safe first, and don’t watch it right before bedtime.


This 1983 film opens with two Air Force personnel in a missile launch control bunker; they are given a launch drill that they believe is real. When one person has moral concerns about launching a nuclear weapon and refuses to turn the launch key,  the government gives a computer control over launching nuclear weapons. The story proceeds to entertainingly examine the risks of removing humans from this system.

In the final scenes, the computer ultimately determines that “the only winning move is … not to play.” In some regard, this conclusion is a hat-tip to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction and its fundamental goal of avoiding playing the “game” of actual nuclear war.


This 2023 film generally uses the central thread of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s clearance revocation hearings to tell the larger story of his life and the Manhattan Project—the top secret effort to build atomic weapons to help end World War II. Toward the end of the film, director Christopher Nolan pulls the thread on Oppenheimer’s desire to implement deterrence via a global organization that would oversee nuclear-related issues. Although such a goal was noble, the ability to implement it in a world with sovereign nation states was doomed to fail, as the film, and history, have shown. ★

Learn more about the Laboratory's involvement in Oppenheimer here.