The Day After (1983)

The Day After, Nicholas Meyer’s film about the aftermath of a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union, is the greatest moment in the history of television. It’s not only that it provoked Ronald Reagan to rethink his views on the use of tactical nuclear weapons. It’s not only that conservatives tried, and failed, to have it suppressed. It’s not only that 100 million people tuned in. It remains the highest-rated TV movie. The Day After is the greatest moment in the history of television because it subverts the very idea of television. For a brief two hours back in 1983, a film managed to break through the web of illusion and propaganda that television uses to keep us brainwashed and compliant.

The Lawrence, Kansas of The Day After is not the United States. Rather, it’s the idealized image of the United States that we had been watching on television for so long it had become more real than reality, a wooden TV drama that we had seen so many times it barely registered in our minds. Dr. Russell Oakes, Jason Robards, is a stock character, the intelligent, good-natured TV dad who anchored TV movies and mini-series all through the 1960s and 1970s. Farmer Jim Dahlberg, played by John Cullum, is his red-state counterpart, a cranky patriarch who can’t quite deal with how his college-aged daughter is going to grow up and leave the nest. Denise Dahlberg is sullen and rebellious, but still a virgin. Eve Dahlberg is a WASP matriarch, such a perfect domestic goddess she continues to do her household chores even after Minuteman missiles erupt through the Midwestern landscape on their way to Moscow. Airman First Class Billy McCoy is the token African American. Dr. Sam Hachiya is the token Asian. Steve Guttenberg as Stephen Klein is the kind of earnest, college-aged young man TV writers can create in their sleep. Danny Dahlberg, the little boy who’s blinded by the nuclear flash, provides the requisite tug on the heart strings.

None of them would work in a film, or on stage. But as Mark Crispin Miller explained in his book Boxed In, television flattens drama. There’s no cinematic grandeur or Shakespearean blood and thunder in a TV show. Even well-written TV shows like Madmen or Breaking Bad get flattened out over time. Walter White was an interesting villain for the first few seasons, but the longer the show went on, the more the writers teased the ending for every dollar of revenue they could get, the less individual he became. By the last episode, when he went down in a blaze of glory against a gang of Neo-Nazis, we just wanted the series to be over. There is no shortage of apocalypse on television. The AMC zombie drama The Walking Dead, at least on a superficial level, is basically The Day After with better written characters and more gunshots. The difference is that The Walking Dead is predictable. The apocalypse has already happened, but it’s not really the apocalypse. It was a sleight of hand, a change in scenery passed off as the end of the world. As long as The Walking Dead gets ratings, the world of The Walking Dead will go on. There will be more zombies, more men and women with guns, more plot twists, and more debate on the Internet.

As we watch The Day After, we get to see its imaginary world die in real time. We’re not talking about the kind of “edgy, daring” TV deaths we see in Game of Thrones, the kind that occasionally kills off a “beloved” character but lets the series go on. We’re talking everybody. That we can turn the television off after the credits roll and go back to our “real” lives hardly matters. The illusion has been shattered. People in whom we invested our emotions, if only because they were so generic that we had to insert ourselves into the blank space, are gone. They watched their world come to an end on TV even as we watched their world come to an end on TV. They listened to it on radio. They observed the coming apocalypse, even as they tried to ignore it. This can happen, we realize. Humans have created the instruments of their extinction. All it takes is one paranoid fool in the White House or the Kremlin, and we as a species are no more. In other words, back in 1983, the illusion that TV creates, a world with no poverty, no anxiety, no real death, was shattered. Nicholas Meyer had subverted the medium. He had showed us the man behind the curtain.

TV, if ever so briefly, had released us from its spell.

7 thoughts on “The Day After (1983)”

  1. Great review, Stan. I really enjoyed reading it. I rarely watch TV dramas, but “The Day After” is one of the few films I have watched. It left me with a haunting feeling, and was very emotionally affecting, as it managed to break through the usual tropes and cliches associated with disaster films, and to capture the utter pointlessness and poignancy of people facing impending extinction. Jason Robards gave a great performance, and I remember the scenes of the missiles being launched from the ground, these instruments of total death and destruction set among the bucolic, sanitized suburbs of Heartland America. The contrast and the disconnect were chilling, which is the main point in your review.

    The greatest post-apocalyptic film I ever saw was “Alas Babylon”. It aired on TV during the Kennedy administration, around 1961. I don’t know if it’s on Youtube, but I recommend it if you can get hold of it. There are several films on Youtube with that title, but they are not the original. Then there was the other post-nuclear holocaust film, “On The Beach”, which was based on Neville Shute’s novel. I read the novel and saw the film, which starred David Nivens, Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner and was quite affecting.

    “The Day After” was necessary, because while an entire generation of kids in the 60s grew up under the constant threat of nuclear war Gen Xers in the 80s did not experience this, and needed to come to grips with the realities of what a nuclear war would be like. We had a-bomb drills all the time, where we had to get under our desks. There were fallout shelter signs everywhere, which of course are totally meaningless. It’s been shown via government literature, that the government wanted people to dig a hole in the ground and literally bury themselves in their cars, so that the government would have fewer corpses to bury.

    My building still has a fallout shelter sign in the basement. It’s pretty hilarious when you think about it. During the Cuban Missile crisis, kids could not sleep. I developed severe insomnia, which stunted my growth. I was supposed to be 5’6″ or taller. Instead, I barely reach 5’4″. I could not sleep for much of the year this was going on & I constantly had nightmares. You would call your friends every few nights to discuss what your plan would be when the bombs started to fall.

    Back when I was an anti-nuke organizer, I read virtually every book on nukes that there was, including “We Almost Lost Detroit” and “No Nukes”. I distinctly remember reading that the US was once almost 11 minutes into a nuclear war, due to radar misinterpreting a bird strike somewhere in the Arctic circle. It was only due to cool-headed thinking by people at NORAD that the US did not launch a nuclear war.

    It’s important that every generation deal with this issue, and view a film that portrays what the aftermath of a nuclear war would mean and would look like. If anything, I thought that “The Day After”, even though emotionally compelling, was a bit sanitized. Weren’t there scenes where people were calling Lawrence, Kansas? Of course, now that no one uses landlines anymore, a nuclear holocaust would knockout world wide wireless communications in a second, due to the electromagnetic pulse. There would be no computers or phones, and the last-minute communications that are pictured in all of these films would not even happen, except for the few people who still use landlines.

    And what none of these films deals with, of course, is the issue of nuclear waste, which will be with us forever. We don’t have enough stable land mass on the planet in which to bury all of it, and the most stable land mass on the North American continent, the Laurentian mountains, certainly is not being used as an n-waste site. The issue of nuclear waste is the single biggest argument against nuclear power plants. And nuclear power plants would not have been a reality had there not been a massive campaign to sell Americans on the idea of “The Peaceful Atom”, which was brilliantly documented in the book “Toxic Sludge Is Good For you”. The half life of weapons-grade fissionable materials, which is in the hundreds of millions of years. It’s axiomatic that there will be no way to guard whatever species and life forms manage to exist in the eons to come, because no warning signs or structures can be erected that are guaranteed to last hundreds of thousands of years.
    The oldest man-made structures to have endured are the Pyramids and they are only about 11,000 years old. And ironically, in the NE prefecture of Japan, many people died in the level 9 tsunami on 3/11/11, because they failed to heed the stone markers that were placed at various points in hillside villages, warning people not to build their houses below that line, and citing previous instances of tsunamis. The villages that heeded those signs were the ones who survived.

  2. I just re-watched a scene from “The Day After”. Yes, indeed, this was the best and the most potent dose of truth ever aired on TV. But I do hope you’ll take a look at “Alas Babylon”, which was considered shocking at the time it aired.

  3. And this is one of my favorite quotes: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” Albert Einstein.

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