Nicholas Meyer – The Day After (1983)
”The Day After,” ABC’s much-discussed vision of nuclear Armageddon, is no longer only a television film, of course; it has become an event, a rally and a controversy, much of it orchestrated. Part of the controversy has to do with whether ”The Day After” makes a political statement, which it does, although the statement is muddy, and part of the controversy has to do with how we confront the nuclear abyss. Champions of the film say it forces us to think intelligently about the arms race; detractors say it preaches appeasement. In fact, both sides have something going for them in their arguments, even if the champions of the film, for the moment, are being heard more clearly than the detractors. ”The Day After” will be seen on ABC at 8 o’clock tonight.
Meanwhile, no matter what its political content, high earnestness or good intentions, ”The Day After” must also be judged as a movie drama. By any conventional standard on this, it is terrible. In the first 50 minutes we are introduced to various characters. Then, in approximately a four-minute holocaust, the bombs fall. There is a white light in the sky over Lawrence, Kan., and then a blinding yellow light. There is the mushroom cloud, full of flame, followed by fire storms and wind. Buildings explode and implode. A poplar forest bends. People, vaporized, turn into images on an X-ray film. A moment or two later, Jason Robards, who survives, says it looked ”like the sun exploded.”
Dramatically speaking, that’s about it. Almost nothing else happens in the next 70 minutes or so except for a relentless depiction of radiation poisoning. John Cullum is shot and several other characters just disappear, apparently edited out of the film, although for the most part actors simply wither away. In successive scenes, Mr. Robards’s hair falls out. A wound on his face grows larger and angrier. His complexion turns sallow. The drama is carried along by latex, gelatin and wigs. The makeup man is the star.
As a primer on the horror of thermonuclear war, this is effective, a graphic rendering of the pit. On the other hand, television and movies deal increasingly in unpleasant images, and ”The Exorcist” is visually more frightening than ”The Day After,” while the ”Halloween” movies are more gruesome. The special quality of ”The Day After,” however, is its feeling of despair. No crops will grow in irradiated Kansas; the farmland is covered with contaminated ash. Infants will be born deformed. Medicine has no cures. The world has been arrested, and continuity is gone.
Thus the despair, made more intense by the awareness that we live in a time, the first time, when it all conceivably could happen. Physicians for Social Responsibility, one of a number of groups that has recommended ”The Day After,” says that many viewers will react with ”feelings of depression and helplessness.” It also says that ”given the accurate horror portrayed in the movie, these emotions are appropriate.” Physicians for Social Responsibility, scarcely a collection of fanatics, urges people to cope with their feelings by supporting a nuclear freeze.
This is a political position, of course, and ABC is being disingenuous when it says ”The Day After” makes no political statement. Deterrence is a political position, and in the movie deterrence has failed. ”We knew the score,” a pregnant woman (Amy Madigan) says from a hospital bed. ”We knew all about bombs. We knew all about fallout. We knew this could happen for 40 years. Nobody was interested.”
Presumably, a nuclear freeze, or unilateral or bilateral disarmament would not have failed, and they would have meant that someone was interested. ”The Day After,” meanwhile, avoids the question of which side fired first, and given the didactic purpose of the movie – making real the horror of thermonuclear war – the question does not even matter.
What does matter, however, is what the movie will mean, how it will be interpreted. The Campaign Against Nuclear War, a disarmament group in Washington, said that ABC was ”doing a $7 million advertising job for our issue.” Representative Edward T. Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who sponsored the nuclear-freeze resolution in the House, said that ”The Day After” would be ”the most powerful television program in history.” Mr. Markey was being excessive, although the Campaign Against Nuclear War was right.
It was right because ”The Day After” engenders a feeling of hopelessness, and to be without hope is to be passive. It is to believe that nothing will avail. Psychologically, this is to want to disarm, to throw down weapons rather than take them up. Near the close of ”The Day After” there is a printed message, white on a black backround, which says: ”It is to be hoped that the images of this film will inspire the nations of this earth, their people and leaders, to find the means to avert the fateful day.” The word ”means” is a code. The movie has conditioned us to accept disarmament, or, at least, to call for a nuclear freeze.
”The Day After” may be absolutely correct in doing this. It is posssible that disarmament, or a freeze, even a unilateral one, is the only way out. On the other hand, the world is a more complicated place than the film makers seem to believe, and there is also a case for arming, rather than disarming. In its broadest, simplest outline, it goes like this:
The Soviet Union has 5,000 ICBM warheads; the United States has 1,054 missile silos. The Soviet Union could target two ICBM warheads to each American silo, leaving it 3,000 warheads; 500 of these could be used to destroy American airfields, and another 500 could be used to wipe out military communications centers. This would still leave the Soviet Union with 2,000 warheads with which it could erase our cities.
American Trident submarines would still be at sea, but the submarines do not have the ability to fire their missiles with the accuracy necessary to eliminate the second-strike Soviet missiles. If an American President declined to surrender after the first Soviet strike and ordered the Trident submarines to launch their missiles, he would be condemning our cities to their deaths. Soviet military thinkers, meanwhile, have repeatedly said that the nation that fires its missiles first will win a nuclear war. Therefore, the way to prevent a nuclear war is to have an arsenal sufficiently large to deter the Soviet Union from launching a first strike.
Granted that this is an insane situation, requiring great nations to have the capacity to blow up the world two and three times over. Somehow, this balance of terror has worked for 35 years, although certainly its continued existence may be questioned. Theoretically, for example, a large nuclear bomb, or series of bombs, exploded high in the atmosphere, would put out of commission all electronic devices in the country or continent beneath the explosion. In the country affected, missiles could not be fired; planes could not take off. The balance of terror, which requires parity, would be askew.
Precisely because it avoids such questions, however, ”The Day After” does not seem seem likely to provoke the reasoned debate about this and other matters of arms control that the film makers say they desire. In its unrelieved despair, the film makes it more likely that there will be no serious debate at all, only a recoiling from what may be the most difficult issues.
Meanwhile, there is a message in the film that is entirely unintended. Freud, and Schopenhauer before him, claimed that in our unconscious we do not really believe we will die. Heidegger said that we know everyone else will die, but that we always add the silent proviso ”but not I.” Presumably, this applies to people who watch movies about thermonuclear war, too. ”The Day After” shows us one family (John Cullum’s) that almost makes it through the disaster. The family lays in canned goods, shotguns and water, and retreats to a cellar. Later, Mr. Cullum is shot by someone trespassing on his property. If he had fired first, of course, or perhaps been better armed, he would have survived. It is not hard to imagine any number of people, after having seen ”The Day After” tonight, buying automatic weapons tomorrow.
That would be an understandable response, even if a primitive one. The possibility of thermonuclear horror – horror is too pale a word; the language has no word for it – is the overwhelming matter of our time. Everyone agrees it must not happen; reasonable people may disagree on how to prevent it. A curiosity about the public discussion of ”The Day After” thus far, however, has been the near unanimity of the praise. Journalists, by and large, have competed for accolades. Criticism has been negligible, and the criticism that has been apparent has come from the political right. The Rev. Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly and The National Review have argued against the film and its implications; everyone else seems to favor them.
Therefore, the discussion has been polarized, the right holding fast, the left and center apparently merging. This means that to even raise questions about a nuclear freeze – whether it is bilateral or unilateral, verifiable or unverifiable, or whether it will work at all – is to be judged a member of the right. There is no real center then; there is only right and left because the center has not defined itself. It has been swallowed up by the left. It cannot ask the questions it must ask, although without the questions there can be no genuine debate. Armageddon is not an ideological issue. – The New York Times
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Arguably, the much more effective film in this cycle was “Testament” (1983).
Some may imagine that we’ve emerged from the very long shadow of these concerns, but that is only ignorance, forgetfulness, and wishful thinking. Some hardcore survivalist groups might still believe that they could somehow come out the other side of this scenario, but that is delusion. Take “The Road” (2009), but about 5X more grim. With the widespread death of ecosystems and the end of plant life (crops, at the base of the food chain), radiation poisoning and atmospheric effects, any still living would envy the dead. It would be useful to revisit these films from time to time, as a reminder.
And please keep on finding notable Made for TV films that have long been out of circulation.