World War III (1982)

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Well who didn’t love the Cold War?  Fifty years of scare tactics and on-purpose misunderstandings, not to mention bunkers and gender-undefinable East German Olympians, what’s not to love?  It was a loony period in world history.  To quote Mr. Sondheim, “everything was possible and nothing made sense.”

And that brings us to “World War III.”  The American Miniseries delighted in the Cold War (see “The Day After” and “Amerika,” both already discussed here), but you expected that.  Of course you did, because you know that cloaks and daggers, insane plot twists, wars, slumming superstars, the Reagan Era and, above all, a competition between unambiguous good and evil are all beloved necessities in the 1980s.  By 1982, we were watching the Kremlin produce one feeble dying leader after another and were told that people in the USSR did not have televisions or toilet paper, but the US president was seemingly the healthiest old codger still alive, which of course translated into US=good, USSR=evil.

But Ronald Reagan, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko are not in “World War III.”  Rock Hudson is.  He’s both our requisite slumming vet and the lead character.  Sure as hell sounds like Ronald Reagan, doesn’t it?

“The Place: Alaska

The Time: The Future”

I’m not sure how far into the future we are, but I have a feeling it’s still a time before Sarah Palin could see Russia from her house.

Extremely bored Air Force men are about to be pulled out of a six-year stupor.  Due to a blip.  Yes, a blip.  That’s the scientific official term for something that suddenly shows up on a radar screen.  In the most exciting twist (okay, it’s only the second exciting twist), one of the guys turns out to be on the Soviet payroll.  We know this because he slowly reaches for a gun and silencer and then kills everyone in sight, most of them asleep. He lights a cigarette and then sends a phony message that there is a small malfunction.  Soviet troops parachute into the Alaskan wilderness.

A bored middle-aged couple living nearby don’t even get names before the troops kill them, adding insult to injury by blasting the wife’s sculptures to smithereens.  She has just made radio contact with someone when she’s also blasted to smithereens.

Chipper President Rock Hudson (Vice President until the previous president died), who seems to have no First Lady, has nightmares, but by the time the work day rolls around, he’s giddy and alert.  He even wants to send the USSR a grain shipment, currently not allowed by an embargo, because their leader, Secretary Brian Keith, “has been on his best behavior.”

The president may decide to run on his own in the next election, and the grain embargo is key to his chances.  When a newspaper trashes this policy, he demands “a rebuttal.”  He continues: “I want a blazing statement showing the past results of our grain embargoes on the Soviet consumer and on the mistake we made in removing it in ’81.  And I want a terrifying projection of our new embargo.  I want farmers to read it and to reach out to me with understanding and patriotism.  I want them not to think how broke they are becoming because they’ve become our main weapon against the Soviets.”  That certainly sounds like the words of someone who might have been president in the early 80s, doesn’t it?  Ssssshhhh, we don’t have to mention names.  This is fiction.

The writer of the damning editorial is Katherine Helmond.  She has seven minutes for this exclusive, but both of them know the tightrope dancing it takes to give and get a story.  “You have the power of the emperor of all emperors,” she says in trying to get him to open up about the Soviets, adding “I like widowers, Mr. President.  They are both sad and sexy.”  Well, okay then.  “I’m afraid I’ve reached that age where sex is constantly on my mind but rarely on my agenda,” he replies.  Sounds like the lines he used to use on Doris Day, only far creepier since he’s the leader of the free world.  There will be no hanky panky in this Oval Office.  “You will be so well cast as a former president,” she snaps back in the best line of the entire film.

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And what of American soldiers in Alaska?  We haven’t seen them yet.  When we do, it’s not exactly comforting.  They are walking through pretty snow-covered country singing “Oh, Susanna.”  That’s a soldier-ish song?  I’m not liking our chances with these guys.  They are oblivious enough not to see they are surrounded by Soviet soldiers armed to the teeth, under the control of Colonel Jeroen Krabbe.  They are slaughtered easily.  Pick a different song, boys.

Soviet leader Secretary Brian Keith is having breakfast with his son when an aide tells him there has been some demonstrations, but they have quashed them.  Brian is not happy to hear force was used.  “People don’t know how much you care, Papa, they really don’t,” the kid adds.  Brian seems awfully pleasant and understanding.  Are we sure he’s really a Soviet leader?  They are not supposed to be nice guys.  He is not excited by the news that the grain embargo is “cataclysmic” for US farmers because it will eventually be a problem for his own people.  Jumping to another issue, he demands to know if KGB leader Robert Prosky can guarantee an end to riots and the full loyalty of every citizen.  He theorizes out loud that “when there are groups of three or four” advisors speaking to him, “everyone is terrified a mistake,” so they pretend all is well.  He wants the truth, but the party line is unbreakable.  A general notes that flexing the might of the military “is the only thing that matters,” but Brian replies that “if we have to prove our military superiority, we have failed.”

Handsome snappy Colonel David Soul arrives in Alaska as a Deputy Brigade Commander, having to fend off nosey fellow soldiers while waiting for a call from his daughter.  Sadly, when it does come, his daughter cancels.  He is crestfallen, but this scene has nothing to do with anything more than establishing that a man so close to his daughter has to be a good guy.  The next few minutes are wasted with backstories that are completely unnecessary, all at a cocktail party thrown by the highest-ranking general and his wife.  The only important piece is when David sees Major Cathy Lee Crosby, as the two apparently have a history.  “Where’s your wife?” she asks, though probably not the ideal first question to an old flame.  No one is in military uniforms, and Cathy Lee’s mufti outfit, a shapely satin thing, certainly makes her stand out at the party.  Once again no slave to polite chatter, she tells David she’s been given “a real cozy” apartment and “we can be there in 15 minutes.”  In a supply closet, they rehash their history, Cathy Lee in full pouncing mode, trying everything she can to get him back in her bed.  “You were always so uncomplicated.  And you still are,” is his argument against her plan to be naked together in 15 minutes.  Considering he’s left his wife (of whom he apparently didn’t think during this dazzling affair five years earlier), what is the problem?

There isn’t one.  They are soon making out heavily, until the general walks in and testily notes, “this party was for you.”  “We’ll be out in a few minutes,” David replies calmly.

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One US soldier did survive the Soviet ambush, but he’s badly injured and sporting a weirdly-colored fake blood, so there is no guarantee he’s going to make it back to the battle station.  Back at the command center, there is discussion of the missing squad, but no one is worried, probably just goofing off.  David is sent to find out what is going on.  David finds the dying soldier and browbeats information from him as he dies.  He learned nothing important, but does find a bullet he knows comes from a Soviet gun.  “He was going home Monday,” another ruefully notes.

What’s not at all clear is where the Soviet soldiers are.  They would need to be in some sort of housing, no?  Never mind, especially when David spots them cross-country skiing behind a tank.  It’s a “battle alert” David issues.  The general, who is bitter because he doesn’t have Cathy Lee mooning for him, refuses to believe the report of enemy soldiers.  He tells David to wait there and track them.  “I guess we play a little game of hide-and-go-seek while the keepers of the flame pull up their pants,” David barks.  Okay then!

The idiot general, Cathy Lee in tow, decides to helicopter over to David, meaning that the Soviets will see him too.  When the general sees the Soviets marching, he knows NORAD is not the organization to help, so get on the horn to Washington.  Again, most of this is filler, so don’t worry about following along too closely.  The general finally does admit this is a problem.  Possibly a very serious one.  David gloats.

But not for long, since the Soviet soldiers start shooting, hitting the general first.  Everyone who has so far had a speaking part manages to get back to the chopper and then to the base camp.  A bunch of extra, however, aren’t so lucky.

When Robert Prosky and an equally malevolent general are given the news that their soldiers have been found, they actually laugh.  “Someday they will blow up the planet,” the general says, referring to the “eager” young man who brought the news. “Boom boom!” Robert replies, cackling.

When President Rock finds out, his generals are not that worried, especially since there is no proof the soldiers are Russians.  “We’re all programmed to believe any intrusion anywhere are Soviets,” Rock replies in the most important line of the movie.  It was true for a long time, no denying that.  Four military branches say they cannot get their men to the area anytime soon and the CIA tells President Rock to mobilize anyway, as the American people “will support anything you do.”  The NSA has a solution, which the press won’t even know about, suddenly the Armed Forces have plenty of guys they can send.  “The situation is now in a bottle,” the president says and then warns his advisors to “keep it there.”  That’s convenient because it gives the plot a guarantee of not going public, which would take so much longer and require so many more actors.  There is no “public” in this miniseries.  “Make every attempt to appear happy, safe and please, no apocalyptic looks or tone,” POTUS insists before asking who the hell Colonel David Soul, “the man who got us all out of bed” is.  No one seems to have that information, which is kind of embarrassing, isn’t it?  Then again, the advisors are painted as idiots.

President Rock decides to call Colonel David himself.  The president informs him that the Soviet government is denying any involvement.  Colonel David has 18 dead bodies as proof. “Governments deny…we do it all the time,” his commander snaps.  David promises they are Soviets.  “I believe you…I don’t believe in starting a war!”  David hems and haws, but Rock is insistent, telling him, “your records indicate you are some kind of frustrated genius, so go be a genius!”  Both David and Rock then tell their separate gatherings of advisors that no one has any real world experience.

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Soviet Secretary Brian Keith is still in the dark about what is really going on, with Robert Prosky telling him the end result will be the Americans lifting the grain embargo.  “You’re insane to flirt with global war over this!” Brian hollers.  The others remain calm and assure him all will go as planned.  A villain with a heart?

Colonel David takes some choppers out to look for the Soviet soldiers, but instead finds a building that is not on any official map. Whatever it is, it’s ideal to work as a battle station.  “They promised me nothing was supposed to happen here,” squawks its manager, Frank Dent.  He’s big on complaints, small on information, this overacting nut.

“I love places like this, untouched by man,” Colonel Jeroen says with an oozing not-niceness, but since he loves Siberia, it does give us a hint as to his mental state (bonkers).  All of the weather and logistical details confusing the Americans are working just fine of the Soviets, still cross-country ski-marching behind one tank.  Note: they are NOT singing “Oh, Susanna.”  Gold star!

David has to teach his National Guard men how to win this fight, offering up DaVinci and Vietnam as lessons, along with a chalkboard that starts to look like one in a football locker room after a bit.  “The name of this game is ‘Depend on Each Other,'” David tells the boys.  He’s maddeningly non-specific and what he’s saying doesn’t register with the dewy soldiers.  Frankly, it didn’t register with me, but I’m in no danger of meeting a pack of hot-headed Ruskies in the Arctic cold anytime soon.

So, we wait. President Rock Hudson half listens when told to go public with the news.  “I don’t know what it is,” he says.  “Then tell them that,” is the reply.  As for the soldiers, they don’t look especially safe or well-hidden, but the wait is soon over.  David finally spots them, saying “slap some more burgers on the grill, guys, here they come.”  That is not code, if you were wondering. Just bad writing.

We restart with a bang, literally.  As the snow blinds them, soldiers shoot at each other, kill each other and die loudly for over ten minutes.  I assumed it was a mock battle, a war game in the parlance of the time, because the fake snow, fake blood, fake sounds, fake aluminum cylinders and fake outcomes couldn’t possibly be part of an actual battle.  Hell, both sides are wearing pretty much the same colors and all speak English.  The only way to pinpoint a Commie here is to listen for English spoken with an accent.  But, since nearly everyone dies, you have time to get used to it.

Alas, the battle is real.  Colonel David Soul has no idea why the Soviets are not hitting them with more manpower and ammunition, because he knows they have it.  He slaps civilian Frank Dent, petrified by the gun battle, demanding to know “what is so stinkin’ important about this stinkin’ battle station that they’re saving?”  Wait, the military is rapidly losing men in a deadly Alaskan skirmish without knowing why?  Then what the hell are they doing there in the first place?  The explanation makes no sense, but it’s something about it being a battle station with “pipe cleaners” that has “only been online for two months.”  The first part, I still don’t get, but as for the second part, there is a waiting period before the military knows about a new battle station?  What is it doing, playing eight weeks of previews while waiting for an opening night like a Broadway musical?

David has figured out a way to destroy the pipeline (though why, we have no idea) and tells a lackey to contact Washington.  “Easier for them to contact us,” he’s told.  How would Washington know contact is needed unless someone asks?  “It’s easier to be an accountant too,” David snaps.  We’ll have to take his word for that, but it spurs everyone into action.

Out in the snow, Soviet Colonel Jeroen Krabbe dispenses orders much the same as Colonel David Soul.  He needs Kremlin approval for a plan to capture the battle station “without blowing it up.”  “How long will that take?” he asks his aide.  “A few hours at best.”  “Make it ‘at most’ before I lose my weather…and my men,” he sneers.

Once in a Washington briefing room with President Rock Hudson, it becomes clear that the pipes are vitally important because they clean (let’s say it together) crude oil.  Now, of course, it makes sense.  It’s silly, the idea of a massive war over something as trivial as oil, doesn’t it?

Doesn’t it?

Unflappable President Hudson listens as his military chiefs detail a plan they have to arm an atomic warhead, “with almost total control.”  Almost?  Ultimately, POTUS decides, “I’m not ready yet to play with atomic weapons…so let’s get back to the thinkable.”  The what?  David explains to his frightened men that they cannot contact their families, they just have to wait.  “The president needs time,” he notes before cracking a series of lighthearted jokes meant to boost everyone’s spirits.  He then flirts with Major Cathy Lee Crosby, with whom he’s apparently had “good times.”

“Sad thing about death, Major, they don’t even know they died,” Colonel Jeroen says wistfully looking at a line of dead bodies and proving he’s no believer in reincarnation with that corker of a line.  His scary aide scoffs when Jeroen says he “hopes there’s meaning in all this,” the obvious reply being, “a soldier doesn’t ask for meaning, Comrade, he asks for information and further instructions, and that is what we will get.”  If it had not yet become obvious, the Ruskies are the bad guys here.  David and Cathy Lee can moon all they want because they are good guys.  The bad guys have no women and no sense of humor, though possibly a touch of ambivalence.

The President has received a call from the Soviets asking for a summit in Iceland.  Those in the office with him make a joke out of it, but how could they have known that in 1986, there would be such a summit?  Could the real-life summit have taken its cue from “World War III?”  That’s a frightening thought!  Anyway, he wants to make the trip in secret (with reference to Kissinger’s secret Chinese trip in the early 70s, though the president is probably harder to hide), and his military advisor begs for the order to go to ‘Def Con Three.’  Luckily, after a tense few seconds, the Commander-in-Chief declines to do so.

Off to Iceland he goes, with only six men accompanying him.  He arrives first in what seems to be a high school auditorium, but soon enough the Soviet leader, Secretary Brian Keith (with an accent as bad as his toupee, to match the toupee Rock is sporting) comes bouncing in with his small team. “So what the hell are you doing in my land,” Rock asks.  “Retaliating,” Brian replies, referring to a grain embargo.  Tempers heat up and President Rock reminds Secretary Brian that the two countries have “an open secret” not to trigger World War III, which Secretary Brian says is not his intention.  “My country will not submit to being supplied by the fruits of the earth,” Secretary Brian snarls.  This gets President Rock all bothered.  He has no patience for the Commie ideas of communal resources.  Rock keeps to his argument about trespassing and Brian to his on grain as things get less congenial.  “If you throw away the rules, it’s the end of the game,” President Rock says, belaboring the point that the Soviets have done all the lying and cheating for 40 years.

Threats are made on both sides, until Rock asks how Brian can underestimate the will of the American people.  “I am concerned only with American leaders,” he replies.  “A classic mistake,” the president reminds him.  If you remember the rhetoric of the Cold War, this exchange is fairly commonplace.  Both sides often noted how the people of each country had no qualms with each other, but the leaders kept it all going.  That discounted everybody’s propaganda, but for some reason, it made people less afraid. Well, at least in the US, since the leaders of the USSR were painted as madmen.  “The American people sooner or later ARE their own leaders,” Rock tells him in triumph, missing only the national anthem to accompany his dialogue.

After hours and hours of deadlock, and not a word from their advisors, Rock tells Brian to go back to Moscow with this message: “think again.”  That’s sure to help!  Let’s stand firm AND be cocky.  They agree to revisit it in 12 hours, with Secretary Brian the one who asks that nothing be told to the rest of the world before then.  Both delegations depart.

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Where is Pug Henry when you need him?  He only needed to show up in order to get world leaders to be sensible.  Alas, we’ll never know.

Back in Alaska, not much is happening.  Jereon and David are actually both very kind, lighting cigarettes for the wounded and keeping everyone from panicking.  One of the Americans has completely cracked up, since he only joined the National Guard “for skiing.”  If he means down mountains, I’m not sure what he’s talking about and if he means up the nasal canal, it doesn’t make sense that way either.  He’s ignored by the rest, who just stare at him.

Unnoticed, another soldier has slipped out of the battle station to steal guns and ammo from the bodies of dead Soviet soldiers when Cathy Lee informed David they did not have enough ammo.  He pulls the pin from a grenade, but is seen and mowed down before he can throw it too far.  It does some damage, but he ends up dead.  Uh oh.  This is not going to lessen tension, is it?

“I’m going to issue a ‘Def Con Three’ alert,” Rock decides on the plane ride home.  He insists the Russians made “the first move” and he’s simply reacting.  He then calls the Alaskan battle station, filling them in on the details and then telling them this: “you and the people with you are the difference between a skirmish and World War III.”  Jeez, no pressure there!  “No one is going to win a nuclear confrontation,” David insists.  Almost in tears, the president says the only hopes are “weather” and the battle station’s ability to “buy me more time.”  David assures the boss his team will succeed in doing the latter.  “You were very open with him,” an aide says.  “He’s going to die,” Rock replies.  An awful lot of gloom and doom here!  “I wonder what my daughter’s going to get for Christmas?” David says aloud, Cathy Lee looking on with concern.

The Russians see every move being made.  Brainiac KGB leader Robert Prosky tells Brian and the rest that “‘Def Con Three’ is for us to see, not for them to use.”  He insists that “we can survive their first strike,” though no one seems to believe his bluster.  “We will counter with ‘Red Flag,'” Prosky decides, after Brian warns him of the frightening human toll.  Prosky is unmoved.

The presidential duties go on, they have to.  The winner of the Junior Farmer of the Year Award and his family are waiting to meet their leader.  Good thing he’s an actor.  “They’ve gone into ‘Red Flag’ and they want us to see it,” his aides tell him.  Right as the president makes a decision not to go to “Def Con Two,” which is real and not for show, he is informed a Russian ship has rammed an American ship in the Arabian Sea.  The military aide deems it “an old Russian trick” to spur the enemy into making a move.  President Rock orders a ‘Def Con Two’ alert, exactly as the Commies expected.

What is supposed to be interesting so far is that the world leaders are playing dangerous games, but the grunts up in Alaska are far more practical and don’t really understand why there needs to be fighting.  Jereon (who has trouble contacting Moscow as the grenade hit his communication devices) and David are rational supportive leaders to their soldiers.  The former has a crazed ideologue to make all the nasty statements and the latter, of course, has a worshipping gal.  In other words, they are humans, but the leaders are the problem.  Oh, wait, isn’t that what I said earlier?  It’s impossible for Rock Hudson to be playing a bad guy, he wasn’t a good enough actor to pull that off, but the script demands clear heroes and villains, so in case we do see Rock as trigger happy, we know that the soldiers, the ones in the ice, are blameless.  We’ve learned to expect such a thing, haven’t we?  Every Civil War or World War II miniseries counters any hardliners with wise brave men (and some women, but war miniseries didn’t have much use for women) we can cheer on without question.

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Jereon finally reaches Brian and Robert.  Brian is concerned about the mission and wants to avoid war, but hawkish Robert refuses to mute his call for war.  He insists that Jereon and his men storm the battle station and have it secured even before a change in the weather.  The Colonel’s attempts to learn information and ask why he is being given such orders are moving to Brian, but Robert snatches away the phone and insists the orders be carried out without question.  While browbeating Jereon, Robert slips in “and the reputation of your family,” which shocks the Colonel.  American audiences would have expected this conversation too, as we were made to understand that if a comrade screwed up, spied, defected or fell from popularity, down came the whole family.  Jereon is hesitant, but goaded into following orders by his warmonger aide, who says he thinks they can take the battle station on their own, no problem adding, “let’s see if we can make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.”  I’m not sure if that adage was used in the USSR, but it doesn’t really matter.  The script is merely expected lines put into the mouths of characters.

“So much for the revolution.  So much for dreams,” worried Brian Keith says, horrified to be standing on this precipice, though everyone around him seems terrifically excited about it.  Robert’s malignant suggestions are actually more like declarations.  “The Americans will back down, it’s all been thought through.  They will back down, I promise you,” Robert chirps, much to Brian’s horror.  He wants to call it all off, but, as President Rock expected, he’s not really the main decision maker in Moscow.

Back in Alaska, everyone is ready for battle.  The Americans have planted mines and are hiding in their completely non-secure aluminum cylinders as the Russians silently pick off lone soldiers and advance further.  “Don’t shoot unless you have to,” David orders his men.  That’s it?  That’s his entire plan?  The Soviet soldiers are mowed down upon approach, but the Americans are forced to retreat into the battle station, except for the few who have had “I’m going to die” written on their foreheads since the onset.  Despite heavy casualties, the Russians make it into the battle station.

As for the Americans, David is wounded, but Cathy Lee is killed.  “I don’t think you’ll be missing much,” David dryly says when he finds her body.  Jereon, unarmed, wants to talk to David.  “Listen, Russian, that spot that you’re standing on happens to be part of the United States and my job is to defend it,” David snaps.  “You know as well as anybody,” Jereon tells him, “that we do not kill people.  We simply inflict casualties.” Now the sanest and most rational character, Jereon says he doesn’t want to kill anyone, but they cannot control events.  The leaders are doing that.  David gets some rah-rah speechifying in about what it means to be a soldier.  “We shouldn’t be talking.  Two soldiers?  That would be the end of war,” David realizes.  “Perhaps the time has come for that,” Jereon agrees.

They two Colonels go to shake hands when the evil Soviet aide tosses a grenade at them, killing everyone.

Secretary Brian Keith is increasingly worried about the hardline tactics being used to goad the US into making big moves.  He’s worried enough to put an extra security detail on his kid, who watches excitedly out the window when Papa drives home.  However, he then watches as Papa’s car explodes.  There was a certain inevitability about this character probably dying, as he was not the personification of evil, but being blown up with your kid watching?  That one I didn’t see coming!

Soviet bombers are 28 minutes from Seattle, so President Rock authorizes a mobilization, but not in enemy airspace.  He’s trying to buy time because he knows Secretary Brian Keith “doesn’t have the stomach” to go through with a war.  When the red phone rings, the president is relieved, until smarmy Robert Prosky tells him Brian is sick with an “intestinal flu.”  The president insists Robert recall the bombers, not yet knowing what happened in the Alaskan battle station, but Robert trumps him by saying he wants to bring his soldiers home, just like he knows President Rock would want to do.  In fact, he’s already drafted a press release calling off the grain embargo he wants the president to use.  President Rock is furious when Robert says he will guarantee no harm comes to the oil reserves.  The conversation gets more and more heated, but the Soviets are stunned to find out the US has sent its own bombers.  The USSR command literally puts the US command on hold–did anyone know the hotline had a hold button?  The Russians agree to order the Alaskan regiment home.  The oil is safe, the planes are recalled, promises are made.  Everything is apparently solved.

Except it’s not.  Robert and the rest of the Soviet command know war cannot happen without a Congressional mandate and the delay caused by getting it means “the first strike initiative is ours.”  President Rock instinctively knows Robert was lying, that Brian is dead because “he stood for peace.”  With tears halting his speech, he allows the bombers to continue on the mission.  “God forgive me,” he says, his head in his hands.

A chilling montage of happy people all over the globe, innocent children and pristine land ends “World War III.”  The faces go from happy to worried as the sound of approaching aircrafts gets louder and louder.

Where “The Day After” and “Amerika” tried to make the threat of nuclear annihilation personal, by using average folks, “World War III” is all about the leaders, the ones who make the decisions.  That is a potentially thrilling look behind the scenes, but it’s also the downfall of “World War III” because the miniseries is simply boring.  It turns out the people are more exciting than their leaders.  However, as a companion piece to the others, it is still a cautionary tale at a time when such things were very real.  Soviet-backed wars in Asia and Europe, the saber rattling of the US military (ooohhhh, Grenada, scary!), high-pitched rhetoric, all of that had the potential to cause the destruction of the planet, or so we were taught.  Would the leaders of the most powerful nations on earth have ever pushed the button?  We’ll never know, but it sure provided tension wondering about it.  “World War III” could use a bit more of that tension.  Instead it squanders its first half with pointless character development and then races to an ending that doesn’t actually show anything.  We never see the “World War III” of the title, only an idea of how it might be declared.

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Categories: Adventure Miniseries

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