12 Movies That Sparked Real Reactions to 'Save Our World'

RealClear Staff

            

Will "Spotlight" be our generation's "All the President's Men"? How was President Reagan inspired by "WarGames"? And will you ever eat at McDonald's again? Movies not only have the power to entertain, but have served as a call to action.

1. 'The China Syndrome' (1979)

"The China Syndrome," a fictional film about a television news reporter (Jane Fonda) and her cameraman (Michael Douglas) investigating the cover-up of an accident at a nuclear power plant was intended to show the dangers of nuclear power. When it was released on March 16, 1979, the nuclear power industry blasted it as "sheer fiction" and a "character assassination of an entire industry." Then 12 days after its release, on March 28, a real nuclear meltdown occurred at the Three Mile Island facility in Pennsylvania. While "The China Syndrome" cleaned up at the box office, the U.S. nuclear power industry was effectively cleaned out: After explosive growth since the 1960s before the film and the accident, no new projects were given the green light until 2012.

2. 'WarGames' (1983)

President Ronald Reagan saw this 1983 film starring Matthew Broderick as a tech-savvy teen who accidentally hacks into the computer of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and nearly sets off World War III at Camp David. A few days later, Reagan met with his national-security team and several members of Congress and asked: “Could something like this really happen?” A week later, Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and returned to the White House with this report: “Mr. president, the problem is much worse than you think.” A little over a year later, Reagan signed a classified national security decision directive, NSDD-145, titled “National Policy on Telecommunications and Automated Information Systems Security,” a precursor to our cyber security policies.

3. 'Super Size Me' (2004)

Morgan Spurlock's premise for his documentary was simple and ingenious: In response to McDonald's claim that its food was generally healthy, Spurlock decided to eat only McDonald's for three meals a day for one month. He sampled every menu item, including the salads. The result: Spurlock gained 24 pounds, his cholesterol spiked, and he experienced mood swings, sexual dysfunction, and fat accumulation in his liver. The film won at Sundance and was nominated for an Academy Award. Within six months, McDonald's dropped the Super-Size portions of its menu, and now all fast food chains post the nutritional data of their menu items at their restaurants and on their websites.

4. 'Philadelphia' (1993)

Although it didn't necessarily change policy, "Philadelphia," in which Tom Hanks won his first Oscar as a gay man with AIDS, was the first Hollywood big-budget, big-star film to tackle the issue of AIDS and signaled a shift in Hollywood films toward more realistic depictions of gays and lesbians.

5. 'JFK' (1991)

Oliver Stone's thriller that delved into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy seemingly gave credence to every crackpot conspiracy theory out there, and although still lauded as a piece of exceptional filmmaking, it is largely considered a work of fiction. However, media attention and box office success led to The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, and the Assassination Records Review Board was formed. The Board collected all of the material and historical records related to the assassination in order to make it available to the public. Since then, this material has been slowly doled out, but all remaining records will not be released until 2017.

6. 'An Inconvenient Truth' (2006)

Al Gore's Oscar-winning film on climate change, directed by Davis Guggenheim, brought the climate change debate into the mainstream and has helped shape public policy on this issue around the world. It is now required viewing for government officials in a number of different countries, and has even been used as a part of the science curriculum in some high schools.

7. 'The Battle of Algiers' (1966)

Gillo Pontecorvo's Italian-Algerian film about the French occupation of Algiers in the 1950s (you can watch it on Hulu) is possibly the most realistic feature film about urban guerilla warfare. Shot on the streets of Algiers documentary style, it has become one of the most influential political films in history. As violence escalates on both sides, children shoot soldiers at point-blank range, women plant bombs in cafés, and French soldiers resort to torture to break the will of the insurgents.  The Black Panthers and the Irish Republican Army implemented some of the tactics used in the film, and it was even screened at the Pentagon in 2003 as an example of the problems faced by the U.S. military in Iraq.

8. 'The Thin Blue Line' (1988)

Errol Morris’ film which argued for the overturning of the death penalty conviction of one Randall Dale Adams, accused of murdering a Dallas police officer, was a groundbreaking documentary style-wise, and fueled the anti-death penalty movement (executions are way down since the film debuted in 1988). As a result of the film, Adams was retried and acquitted.

9. 'All the President's Men' (1976)

As Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman inspired a whole generation of journalists -- and put a human face on what the country went through with the Watergate scandal and the eventual downfall of President Richard M. Nixon. Journalism schools across the nation thrived as eager young college graduates came to view reporting not as a lowly trade but as a noble profession -- the fruits of which you can see in the recent Oscar-nominated film "Spotlight." But its lasting legacy: laws and judicial precedents which strengthened the reporters right to protect their confidential sources.

10. 'Rosetta' (1999)

This Belgian film from the Dardenne brothers about the life of a young, poor Belgian teenager living on a trailer park with her alcoholic mother won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes film festival. After the film received such accolades, Belgian lawmakers voted through “Rosetta’s Law” to protect the rights of teenage workers in the country -- versions of that law became policy throughout Europe.

11. 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' (1975)

Only one of two films to win all five of the top Academy Awards -- Best Picture, Best Director (Milos Forman), Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louis Fletcher) and Best Screenplay (Bo Goldman, Lawrence Hauben) -- the lasting legacy for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," based on Ken Kesey's best-selling book, might be how it changed the mental health industry especially with the discontinuation of shock therapy. Psychiatrist Dr. Frank Pittman told the Discovery Channel said it "had an enormous effect" on his field. It also helped spur the development of more effective anti-psychotic drugs that allowed more patients to be treated at home and live more normal lives.

"It gave voice, gave life, to a basic distrust of the way in which psychiatry was being used for society's purposes, rather than the purposes of the people who had mental illness," Pittman said. "Back in my training in the early 60s, we gave shock treatment, particularly at that time as a treatment for agitated depression. It worked more quickly than the drugs we had then ... but it left me squeamish. The brain is much too delicate, much too mysterious, for us to mess with."

12. 'Blackfish' (2013)

Gabriela Cowperthwaite's documentary of how orcas (a.k.a. "Killer Whales") have been mistreated at SeaWorld and other marine amusement park facilities is so chilling that in November 2015, SeaWorld, after initially blasting "Blackfish," announced it was ending its controversial “Shamu Show” and replacing it with an “all-new orca experience” that will focus on the “natural behavior of whales.” The documentary has taken its toll on the company’s reputation, visitor numbers and share price, which has dropped by more than half.

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