The Day After
One thing about collecting DVDs is the ability to practically run your own TV network. My best friend and I tend to have little mini marathons of our favorite shows or sometimes we just pick a theme and run our own film festivals. The latest topic we explored was the Cold War. For someone of my age childhood, the fifties and sixties, were built upon a foundation of fear, the dreaded Communists where always poised to annihilate us with their vast storehouse of nuclear weapons. Of course we had our own stockpiles thanks to the most somber by product of the times; the nuclear weapons race. A strange term entered the lexicon; MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction, the only possible end result of a nuclear weapons exchange this spectra of doom did not end in the eighties, it still existed even as the Soviet Union began to implode. In fact the dissolution of the USSR was frequently cited as a reason for even more concern. On Sunday evening November 20, 1983 the ABC network aired one of the most frightening films made; ‘The Day After’. Unlike many made for TV movies this one sought to lay out a worst case scenario that was largely unspoken but definitely on every mind, the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the United States. This film had such a powerful impact on the audience that it would not be re-run for many years and not be released to DVD until 2004. The film shook the nation and did succeed in one major goal of the production started a serious and public debate of the effectiveness of nuclear weapons. The network had to open telephone hot lines to assist the audience to cope with the nightmarish possibility of the events actually playing out. One of my most vivid memories of that night was of the special edition of Nightline that followed. Among the notable people debating our nuclear policy was scientist Carl Sagan. During that heated debate he introduced the concept of nuclear winter to the world; even if you survived the blast and subsequent radiation the long lasting and catastrophic impact on the global eco-system could result in the extinction of most life on this planet. We may have different fears that occupy our lives now but this film remains a piece of television history that quite literally affected the world.
The author of the teleplay was Edward Hume. By the time he presented this work he was already very well known for scripts for such notable series as ‘Canon’ and ‘The Streets of San Francisco’. While they were exceptional series this film will remain the crowning achievement of his career. Most people will recognize the director Nicholas Meyer as a part of the incredibly famous science fiction franchise; ‘Star Trek’. He directed ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’ before this film and would eventually helm ‘Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’ several years later. Both Hume and Myers had to alter their initial visions of this project due to the pressure applied by the ABC network’s standards and practices department better known as the censors. This film was created at the dawn of cable television long before the advent of original programming outside the constraints of broadcast TV. Undoubtedly if this movie was made by HBO or Showtime today it would be much closer to the originally reported four hour miniseries planned. Considering the limitations this production rose far above all expectations. You might think that terror is created by some supernatural serial killer or creature like Freddie or Jason but the truly frightening aspect of this film is how close the world came to it coming to pass.
One of the things that had to be avoided with this film was veering to a sensationalistic disaster flick. One reason this movie became the ground breaking event it did was because it succeeded in this so extremely well. The actual attack last a very brief time and comes almost half way through the movie. The first section of the film is devoted to getting the audience to understand the characters. The location was Lawrence, Kansas, a moderate sized American mid-western it just happens to be located close to the city that just happens to be located in the vicinity of the Strategic Air Command’s underground nuclear missile silos. In the event of a war this would be a primary first strike target for the Russians. This choice brought the film out of the political and economic centers of the nation right into the heartland. The events leading up to the war are not overtly shown; the exposition is done through news broadcasts on TV and radio or casual discussions by the townsfolk. This moves the film into more of a cinema verite production. Much of the story leading up to the destruction centers on a group of regular people and their reaction to the growing threat of war. As tension in Europe rise the apprehension multiples in this country. Some try to prepare by collecting food, water and firearms while others attempt to leave the city. One person followed closely is Dr. Russell Oakes (Jason Robards). Through him the audience gets a view of how hospitals would be overwhelmed by the thousands of victims, many long beyond help. We also see the devastating effects of radiation as the doctor’s condition rapidly declines. We are also introduced to an airman, Billy McCoy (William Allen Young) stationed nearby. He faces the terrible dilemma caught between staying on his post and rushing to his family.
For those of us who lived through this period of history the sight of the missiles being launched. Rising in the American sky on their way to points in Russia chills you to the core. This was our nightmare for decades and seeing it here showed just how helpless the average citizen was in this situation. The film was bleak and despondent especially for a made for television movie. This had to be presented this way to drive home its point; in nuclear war there are no winners.
"Imagine a room awash in gasoline, and there are two implacable enemies in that room. One of them has nine thousand matches, the other seven thousand matches. Each of them is concerned about who's ahead, who's stronger." - Carl Sagan