Why Nukes Are Still Just As Scary As They Were in the 60s

I think people today, especially younger people, don’t think of nuclear weapons as a real threat the way that people who lived through, say, the Cuban Missile crisis did. Remember the days when campuses would erupt in “no nukes” protests? When activists would lie across train tracks to stop trains from delivering bombs to missile sites? The crises are hidden now. The protests small, when there are any. The Cold War has ended, the assumption goes, and with the Berlin Wall fell the threat of World War Three. I had been operating under this tacit assumption for some time: that a Dr. Strangelove-style disaster was, if not impossible, then nearly so. But as I recently heard someone point out, if the probability of something is not zero, it will eventually happen. So it’s not an antiquated concern; the nuclear threat is as present as it was when Kennedy said this to the UN, if not moreso:

As the documentary film Countdown to Zero eloquently and frighteningly lays out, that “Sword of Damocles” still hangs above our collective heads, despite significant reductions in the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the U.S., and the decision of countries like South Africa to get rid of their arsenals altogether. Kennedy cites “miscalculation, mistake, or madness” as reasons the next bomb could go off, and the film discusses each in turn. Mistake and miscalculation are why we’ve had a number of quiet but very serious close calls in the two decades since the Cold War supposedly ended — the U.S. and Russia still have thousands of nuclear warheads on hair trigger, such that if just enough mistakes or miscalculations were made in the right order, hundreds of millions in both countries could be dead within thirty minutes. It almost happened in 1995, in what’s known as the Norwegian Rocket Incident:

From PBS.org:

It was one of the most frightening moments since the Cuban missile crisis. In the early morning hours of January 25, 1995 a Russian radar crew spotted a fast-moving object above the Barents Sea at Russia’s northern border. A missile they couldn’t identify. The Russians have always viewed U.S. nuclear submarines as the greatest threat; a Trident missile launched from that area could reach Russia’s mainland in 10 minutes. At the Russian radar station, the crew saw the missile suddenly separate into several sections just as the warheads of a Trident missile would. Their trajectory seemed to be carrying them towards Moscow. In Moscow, a signal went out to the nuclear briefcases which always accompany President Boris Yeltsin and top defense officials. Russia had established a deadline: they’re supposed to detect an attack, assess it and reach a decision on retaliation within 10 minutes.

There were only 5 minutes left. Urgent radio contact was made with Russian submarine commanders. Orders were given to go into a state of combat readiness and the military issued orders to the Strategic Forces to prepare to possibly receive the next command, which would have been the launch order. For 4 minutes, the Russian commanders waited for the order to launch. The Russian strategic plans permit launching Russian missiles before enemy missiles hit Russian territory. Eight minutes after the alarm was first sounded, the mysterious objects fell into the seas. The decision to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike was averted; the Russian forces stood down.

Hours later, the Russians learned that the unidentified object had been a scientific rocket launched from Norway to study the Northern lights. The Russian government had been notified weeks earlier the launch was coming, but no one told the radar crew.

In other words, one day in 1995, Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who was by all accounts frequently drunk, and was characterized by one diplomat as a “robot on drugs,” had the proverbial red button placed before him. If he’d been in a less rational state of mind, or if he’s listened to the advice of his military commanders, there would have been a nuclear holocaust.

Other nuclear alerts have been triggered by flocks of migrating geese, meteor showers (in 1960), and a malfunctioning computer chip costing 46 cents (1980). Pentagon officials admit that even today, equipment failures cause two or three false alarms every year.

As for madness, let’s look at Pakistan. It is a nuclear power with some seventy bombs in its arsenal. Its government is highly unstable. It’s a hotbed for religious radicalism. Osama Bin Laden lives there. Bin Laden has stated that his ultimate goal is to kill somewhere in the neighborhood of four million American citizens, which according to his calculations, would just about even out the body count in his holy war. It’s pretty clear that terrorist organizations are not going to be able to kill that many people with airplanes or conventional weapons. They will need a nuclear bomb.

There’s lots of talk about terrorists smuggling a “dirty bomb” into the states. The government has spent billions of dollars installing radiation detectors at American ports, which scan the great numbers of shipping containers that come into the country every day. They are very good at detecting elements like Cesium, which you’d use to make a dirty bomb. Various reports have argued that while such bombs would cause plenty of panic and certainly some deaths, they would be nowhere near as destructive as an actual nuke. You can make perhaps a few thousand people very, very sick with a dirty bomb. You cannot level a city.

Highly enriched uranium, however — which you need to make a “real” bomb — is much easier to sneak past those sensors. When encased in lead, its radiation signal is quite weak. Porcelain, china, even kitty litter give similar signals. (Every day there are thousands of false alarms at ports involving household products like those.) The whole thing, even sealed in lead, would be about the size of a football. If it was hidden in a shipment of kitty litter, they’d never find it. (According to this article, we’re working on better detectors.) Once you had the material inside the country — say, in the heart of the target city — making the device that sets it off is not an insurmountable challenge. You need about a million dollars worth of equipment and the help of a few dozen people trained in various aspects of weapons technology. This sort of tech might’ve been a big secret in the 1950s — it’s not anymore.

So what can the world do to prevent a nuclear holocaust, accidental or intentional? The Global Zero foundation has a step-by-step plan (and a nice little petition you can sign if you feel so inclined) which involves a combination of further nuclear reductions (the ultimate goal being zero) and much better and more secure policing of the world’s existing stockpile of highly-enriched uranium, the key to bomb-making.

To close, here’s a nice little featurette on Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the bomb,” and the incredible regret he came to feel in the decades following the Manhattan Project.

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Warner Bros.
19 Shadowy Facts About Tim Burton's Batman
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Superhero movies are bigger than they’ve ever been before, but we arguably wouldn’t be here at all without 1989’s Batman. Produced at a time before comic book movies were considered big business, Tim Burton’s dark look at a superhero then best known for a goofy TV show is a pop culture landmark, and the story of how it was made is almost as interesting as the film itself. So, to celebrate Batman—which was released on this day in 1989—here are 19 facts about how it came to the screen.

1. AN EARLY MOVIE IDEA RELIED ON THE CAMPINESS OF THE CHARACTER.

As development of a Batman movie began, studio executives were still very tied to the campiness embodied by the Batman television series of the 1960s. According to executive producer Michael Uslan, when he first began attempting to get the rights to make a film, he was told that the only studio who’d expressed interest was CBS, and only if they could do a Batman In Outer Space film.

2. IT TOOK 10 YEARS TO MAKE.

Uslan lobbied hard for the rights to Batman, and finally landed them in 1979. At that point, the fight to convince a studio to make the film ensued, and everyone from Columbia Pictures to Universal Pictures turned it down. When Warner Bros. finally agreed to back the film, the issue of developing the right script had to be settled, and that took even more time. In 1989, after years of battling, Batman was finally released, and Uslan has been involved in some form in every Batman film since.

3. AN EARLY SCRIPT FEATURED BOTH THE PENGUIN AND ROBIN.

When Uslan finally got the chance to develop the film, he drafted legendary screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who had been a consultant on Superman, to write the script. The Mankiewicz script included The Joker, corrupt politician Rupert Thorne, a much greater focus on Bruce Wayne’s origin story, The Penguin, and the arrival of Robin late in the film. The script was ultimately scrapped, but you can see certain elements of it in Batman Returns.

4. TIM BURTON WASN’T THE FIRST POTENTIAL DIRECTOR.

Though Warner Bros. ultimately chose Tim Burton to helm Batman, over the course of the film’s development a number of other choices emerged. At various points on the road to Batman, everyone from Gremlins director Joe Dante to Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman was in line for the gig.

5. MANY STARS OF THE TIME WERE CONSIDERED FOR BATMAN.

The casting process for Batman was a long one, and involved a number of major stars of the day. Among the contenders for the title role were Mel Gibson, Bill Murray (yes, really), Kevin Costner, Willem Dafoe, Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, Ray Liotta, and Pierce Brosnan, who later regretted turning down the role.

6. TIM BURTON HAD TO FIGHT TO CAST MICHAEL KEATON.

At the time, Michael Keaton was best known for his comedic roles in films like Mr. Mom and Night Shift, so the thought of casting him as a vigilante of the night seemed odd to many. Michael Uslan remembers thinking a prank was being played on him when he heard Keaton’s name pop up. Burton, who’d already worked with Keaton on Beetlejuice, was convinced that Keaton was right for the role, not just because he could portray the obsessive nature of the character, but because he also felt that Keaton was the kind of actor who would need to dress up as a bat in order to scare criminals, while a typical action star would just garner “unintentional laughs” in the suit. Burton ultimately won the argument, and Keaton got an iconic role for two films.

7. JACK NICHOLSON WAS THE FIRST CHOICE FOR THE JOKER, BUT HE WASN’T THE ONLY CHOICE.

From the beginning, Uslan concluded that Jack Nicholson was the perfect choice to play The Joker, and was “walking on air” when the production finally cast him. He certainly wasn’t the only actor considered, though. Among Burton’s considerations were Willem Dafoe, James Woods, Brad Dourif, David Bowie, and Robin Williams (who really wanted the part).

8. TIM BURTON WON JACK NICHOLSON OVER WITH HORSEBACK RIDING.

When Nicholson was asked to discuss playing The Joker, he invited Burton and producer Peter Guber to visit him in Aspen for some horseback riding. When Burton learned that was what they’d be doing, he told Guber “I don’t ride,” to which Guber replied “You do today!” So, a “terrified” Burton got on a horse and rode alongside Nicholson, and the star ultimately agreed to play the Clown Prince of Crime.

9. EDDIE MURPHY WAS ONCE CONSIDERED TO PLAY ROBIN.

Though the character of Robin was ultimately scrapped because it simply didn’t feel like there was room for him in the film, he did appear in early drafts of the script, and at one point producers considered casting Eddie Murphy—who, you must remember, was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1980s—for the role. 

10. SEAN YOUNG WAS THE ORIGINAL VICKI VALE.

Burton initially cast Blade Runner star Sean Young as acclaimed photographer Vicki Vale, who would become Bruce Wayne’s love interest. Young was part of the pre-production process on Batman for several weeks until, while practicing horseback riding for a scene that was ultimately cut, she fell from her horse and was seriously injured. With just a week to go until shooting, producers had to act fast to find a replacement, and decided on Kim Basinger, who essentially joined the production overnight.

11. TIM BURTON WASN’T OFFICIALLY HIRED UNTIL BEETLEJUICE BECAME A HIT.

Though he was basically already a part of the production, Burton wasn’t officially the director of Batman right away. Warner Bros. showed interest in him working on the film after the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but according to Burton they only officially hired him after the first weekend grosses for Beetlejuice came in.

“They were just waiting to see how Beetlejuice did,” Burton said. “They didn’t want to give me that movie unless Beetlejuice was going to be okay. They wouldn’t say that, but that was really the way it was.”

12. DANNY ELFMAN THOUGHT HE WAS GOING TO BE FIRED UNTIL HE PLAYED THE MAIN THEME.

Danny Elfman is now considered one of our great movie composers, but at the time Batman was released he didn’t have any blockbuster credits to his name. He recalls meeting with Burton (with whom he had worked on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) and producer Jon Peters to go over some of the music he’d already written for the film, and feeling “a lot of skepticism” over whether he should be the composer for Batman. It wasn’t until Burton said “Play the march,” and Elfman went into what would become the opening credits theme for the film, that he won Peters over.

“Jon jumped out of his chair, really just almost started dancing around the room,” Elfman said.

13. THE JOKER WASN’T ALWAYS GOING TO KILL BATMAN’S PARENTS.

In the final film, The Joker (then named Jack Napier) is revealed to be the gangster who guns down Bruce Wayne’s parents in the streets of Gotham City. It’s a twist that some comic book fans still dislike, and according to screenwriter Sam Hamm, it definitely wasn’t his fault.

“That was something that Tim had wanted from early on, and I had a bunch of arguments with him and wound up talking him out of it for as long as I was on the script. But, once the script went into production, there was a writer’s strike underway, and so I wasn’t able to be with the production as it was shooting over in London, and they brought in other people.”

Hamm also emphasizes that it was also not his idea to show Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave.

14. THE CLIMACTIC SCENE WAS WRITTEN MIDWAY THROUGH SHOOTING.

Though much of the film is still derived from Hamm’s script, rewrites continued to happen during shooting, and one of them involved the final confrontation between Batman and The Joker in a Gotham City clock tower. According to co-star Robert Wuhl, the climax was inspired by Jack Nicholson and Jon Peters, who went to see a production of The Phantom of the Opera midway through filming and watched as the Phantom made his final stand in a tower. Together, they somehow determined that a final fight in the tower was what Batman needed.

“The next day, they started writing that scene … the whole ending in the tower,” Wuhl said.

15. MICHAEL KEATON’S BATMAN MOVEMENTS WERE INSPIRED BY THE RESTRICTIONS OF THE COSTUME.

Batman fans still love to make jokes about the original costume, and Michael Keaton’s inability to turn his head (there’s even a dig at that in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight), but the restrictions of the costume actually inspired how Keaton performed as the Dark Knight. In 2014, Keaton revealed that his performance as Batman was heavily influenced by a moment when, while trying to actually turn his head in the suit, he ended up ripping it.

“It really came out of the first time I had to react to something, and this thing was stuck to my face and somebody says something to Batman and I go like this [turning his head] and the whole thing goes, [rriipp]! There was a big f***ing hole over here,” he said. “So I go, well, I've got to get around that, because we've got to shoot this son of a bitch, so I go, 'You know what, Tim [Burton]? He moves like this [like a statue]!’”

“I'm feeling really scared, and then it hit me—I thought, 'Oh, this is perfect! This is perfect.' I mean, this is, like, designed for this kind of really unusual dude, the Bruce Wayne guy, the guy who has this other personality that's really dark and really alone, and really kind of depressed. This is it.”

16. GOTHAM CITY WAS REAL, AND IT WAS EXPENSIVE.

Production designer Anton Furst put a lot of work into the incredibly influential designs for the film’s version of Gotham City, and the production was committed to making them pay off. The production ultimately spent more than $5 million to transform the backlot of London’s Pinewood Studios into Gotham City, and you can see the dedication to practical effects work in the final film.

17. PRINCE WAS PART OF THE PRODUCTION EVEN BEFORE HE JOINED IT.

Batman famously features original songs by Prince, who wrote so much new material for the production that he basically produced a full album. Even before the Purple One was drafted to write for the film, though, he was influencing it. Burton played Prince songs on set during the parade sequence and the Joker’s rampage through the museum.

18. THE FILM’S MARKETING WAS SO EFFECTIVE THAT IT INSPIRED CRIMES.

By the time Batman was actually on its way to release, it was becoming a phenomenon, and the marketing for the film was inspiring a frenzy among fans. People were buying tickets to other films just to see the first trailer, and selling bootleg copies of the early footage. The poster, featuring the iconic logo, was so popular that, according to Uslan, people were breaking into bus stations just to steal it.

19. IT WAS A BOX OFFICE LANDMARK.

Though studio executives resisted the idea of a “dark” Batman movie for years, the film ultimately set a new standard for box office success. It was the first film to ever hit $100 million in 10 days, the biggest film in Warner Bros.’ history at the time, and the box office’s biggest earner of 1989—and that’s not even counting the massive toy and merchandising sales it generated.

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