Thanks for the Mushroom Cloud

One of my first assignments in journalism was to piece together the country's secret plans for nuclear war.

I was a research assistant to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, who was writing a book about the Pentagon. This was in the waning days of the Cold War, when the doomsday scenario was a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. Woodward had interviewed dozens of people familiar with the military's highly classified plans for such a scenario. My job was to take the voluminous notes from these interviews, which he had transcribed and printed out on neat pages, and make sense of them.

Nuclear strategy is an abstruse, highly technical subject, and the interviews reflected it. After struggling to reduce them to a simple outline, I decided the only way to understand what we had was to cut up the notes by subject matter, label each fragment as to source and date, and paste them back together in a new, rigorously logical order. If 15 different sources had talked about, say, specific Soviet cities targeted by U.S. long-range nuclear missiles, I would paste those fragments together.

I spent weeks and countless glue-sticks methodically executing this plan, and the little slips of paper spread across the floor and most of the furniture in a large room of Woodward's house. When my masterpiece was done, it was 5 inches thick, and I actually worried that it might fall into enemy hands. And do you know how much space it rated in Woodward's 1991 book, The Commanders? One paragraph.

There was no story there, no new revelation about nuclear warfare. What's more, the subject had lost its urgency since the early days of the Cold War. The nuclear threat hadn't gone away, but it had come to feel like an abstraction, a remote theory with little connection to reality. Journalism is a pragmatic business where actual events, not theories, are the name of the game. In the real world of the late 20th century, the United States was fighting conventional wars against dictators such as Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein. The book wound up being mostly about the Persian Gulf War.

I tell this story because suddenly we're worrying all over again about nuclear weapons. The media are full of reports on nuclear terrorism. "How Scared Should We Be?" asked a red headline on the front page of The New York Times Magazine a few Sundays ago. On television, radio, and the Internet, it's the theme du jour. The No. 1 movie in America is The Sum of All Fears, a thriller about terrorists exploding a nuclear bomb in Baltimore.

This last fact may seem irrelevant, a bit of meaningless cultural synchronicity with little bearing on reality. In the initial news reports on the movie, it was noted that the Tom Clancy book came out more than 10 years ago, and that at the time of last September's attacks, the movie was already in the can. Most of the reviews have ranged from the barely tepid ("Bottom Line: Adds Up to Little," advised People magazine) to the downright bitter ("Never has a movie taken on a subject of greater immediacy, or handled it more ineptly," wrote The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern). And lest the public mistake the film's scary attack scenario—a nuke disguised as a cigarette machine is smuggled into the United States and detonated during the Super Bowl—for real life, the U.S. Customs Service called a news conference this week to assure us that it has ways of uncovering such a plot. In other words, this ain't reality.

I've seen the movie and can report it has the usual Hollywood flaws: thin characters, wooden dialogue, a dumb romance, and a truly laughable ending. But for all its shortcomings, it has one remarkable sequence, a scene near the middle that imagines how a nuclear attack in a real American city might look and feel. Once you've seen these images, they are hard to forget, and they may explain why, even as the movie is savaged by the critics, people are flocking to see it.

Movies are not reality. But when the reality in question is something few of us (outside of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) have ever experienced, even a mediocre movie like this one can help get you past the numbing abstractions and the vogue phrases ("dirty bomb") that don't mean much to any of us, because we've never been there.

Many of the recent stories about nuclear terrorism reference this movie by name, and give a brief summary of the plot. In one sense, this is an old journalistic trick: You establish the cultural currency of your subject by noting, high up in the piece, a Hollywood connection. But in this case, it also serves a useful purpose, by giving an urgent but highly theoretical subject a connection to something that feels like reality. What's more real to you: a stark, memorable image of a mushroom cloud over Baltimore, or 15 paragraphs about fissionable material?

The best journalism about nuclear terrorism doesn't need a movie as a crutch. That Times Magazine piece of a few Sundays ago didn't mention the film until way down the text, in a throwaway allusion. But the author of that piece, Bill Keller, is an unusually good storyteller, and his voice gave the material all the drive it needed.

The same cannot be said for most of the new journalism on nuclear terror, which is why a cheesy popular movie has become a media touchstone. You can cut and paste abstractions all day long, but when the chips are down, you still need a story.