INTO YOUR LIFE IT WILL CREEP
HOW THE ‘MID-’80s NUCLEAR WAR MESSAGE MOVIE’ REMAINS RELEVANT TODAY
‘In the morning at Camp David I ran the tape of the movie ABC is running on Nov. 20. It’s called The Day After in which Lawrence, Kansas, is wiped out in a nuclear war with Russia. It is powerfully done, all $7 million worth. It is very effective and left me greatly depressed.”
If the idea of a sitting president altering their foreign policy based on a TV show sounds preposterous to you – and given that the current president of the United States is a former reality television star, it probably shouldn’t – consider Ronald Reagan’s diary entry, above, dated Oct. 10, 1983.
Reagan would go on to add: “My own reaction: we have to do all we can to have a deterrent and to see that there is never a nuclear war.”
The Day After was the kind of network TV movie “event” that would be unheard of today, complete with a special warning to children and a post-program live debate panel which included, among others, Carl Sagan and Henry Kissinger. A record- setting 100 million American viewers watched it over Thanksgiving, and it would go on to win 12 Emmys.
But it wasn’t the only nuclear war movie released that year. Earlier that summer, Reagan watched WarGames, a tech thriller starring Matthew Broderick as a teenaged hacker who breaks into the NORAD computer nuclear defence system, nearly triggering World War III. According to Fred Kaplan’s book Dark Territory, when asked by Reagan if the same thing could happen in real life, John Vessey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, replied, “Mr. President, the problem is much worse than you think.”
As if that wasn’t enough, 1983 also saw the theatrical release of what was intended to be a PBS American Playhouse production: Testament, on the aftermath of a nuclear exchange in a cosy suburb of San Francisco.
Together, this frightening mini- genre — the mid- 1980s nuclear war message movie — would go on to include the grossly disturbing British film Threads in 1984 (which Reagan also reportedly viewed on its U.S. release), followed by the animated film When the Wind Blows in 1986.
Though in retrospect it may seem like a coordinated cultural effort, none of these films share a common birth story. The Day After was the brainchild of veteran ABC exec and TV movie producer Brandon Stoddard. WarGames was meant to explore the concept of genius in a computer age; the nuclear plot was secondary. Testament was based on a three page short story by Carol Amen written in 1981. Threads was a reboot of the long-banned BBC 1965 nuclear war movie The War Game.
Yet they were all coincidentally released at or shortly after a time in U. S.- Soviet relations that American journalist Alexander Zaitchik calls “arguably the tensest and most dangerous season of the entire Cold War,” a time when a tense arms race between NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries reached fever pitch with the election of Reagan in 1980 and the death of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev two years later.
Despite the very real threat of nuclear annihilation – as Zaitchik points out several members of the Reagan administration believed a global thermonuclear conflict with the Soviet Union was “winnable” – advice given to the American people at the time consisted of the infamous suggestion of Reagan defence of- ficial T. K. Jones: all you needed to survive a nuclear blast was to hide under a door with some dirt piled on top.
It was this naïveté upon which The Day After director Nicholas Meyer (who started filming immediately after completing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn) pours his scorn, and the combination of provocative horror and targeted messaging make the two- hour film the granddaddy of the genre.
As a movie, The Day After is a bit of a mess: several characters are barely introduced before they are dropped or annihilated in the attack, which comes around the hour mark. Meyer however later admitted as much: “I never viewed this as a movie per se, more like a big public service announcement. I wanted it to be as crude and in your face as possible.”
In that vein, it is chillingly credible, particularly as the deteriorating situation in East Germany quickly turns the Cold War hot, gradually pushing various characters – a Kansas City doctor ( played typically well by Jason Robards), a local farmer, a young private called away from his family on a special alert – into full blown panic. The devastating attack scenes – with atmospheric bombs, blinding flashes and mushroom clouds – though dated by today’s effects standards, still have the power to terrify. Those that survive must deal with finding food, avoiding scavengers and surviving burns, disease and radiation poisoning.
The film also includes a few pointed jibes at nuclear war hawks. As the threat of attack looms larger, the farmer and his young son help the local pastor shovel earth onto the church’s basement windows. “What good does the dirt do?” the son asks innocently. Everyone shrugs and keeps digging.
Later, after the attack, the surviving farmers gather for a local council meeting, in which they sit incredulously as the leaders read government pamphlets about how to “scrape off ” a few feet of irradiated soil and replant their crops.
The film ends with a very Reagan-sounding fictional president offering a laughably triumphalist message over the radio as dying people sit idly by and bodies are carted off in heaps to makeshift morgues: “I wish to assure you America has survived this terrible tribulation.” With an Aaron Copland- esque soundtrack and a setting reminiscent of Reagan’s 1984 Morning in America election spot, The Day After feels like it was made for the president himself.
Yet for all its shock value – and it truly is hard to believe the thing aired on a major U. S. network – The Day After is not the most effective film of the bunch. That title belongs to Testament, in which Jane Alexander tries to hold her family together after a nuclear attack devastates the United States.
The film is stark in its simplicity – the attack isn’t presaged with worrying headlines but arrives out of nowhere, as likely as a scenario for a nuclear war as any. All we see of it is a bright flash in a suburban living room as the TV turns to snow, a brutal domestic violation, followed by the slow, steady collapse of a once closely knit community as the fallout slowly rains down.
Testament features no gaudy makeup or hammy special effects, but it is the hardest of these films to watch, and as a result it holds up the best. It’s not clear if Reagan watched it, but in an age where we have once again become complacent in the very real face of nuclear war, you definitely should, and the others too.
Just not on the same day.