The threat of nuclear attack is something that has remained ever-present for the past 70 years. The technology may keep improving, and the potential enemy may keep changing, but whether it’s the Japanese, the North Koreans, the Americans, the Cubans, the Iraqis (ha!) or – in the case of The Day After – the Russians who are the would-be obliterators, much of the world lives its day-to-day life with the constant underlying knowledge that at any point another pissed-off country could press a button and that’d be that.
The Day After was an ambitious and brave TV movie that attempted to convince all who watched it that nuclear war shouldn’t be the ultimate answer (which sort of goes without saying, but some people are a bit daft). It shows the build-up, the result and the aftermath of a fictional nuclear attack on Kansas City.
Curious to know how shit goes down? Here’s the basics – Russia doesn’t like the fact that America has troops in West Berlin (this is when the Berlin Wall was still up, remember), so it starts sending troops to East Germany to try and pressure America into leaving. America tells Russia to keep its snout out of it, and East German troops start getting arsey so Russia blockades West Berlin. America tells Russia that if it doesn’t back down it’ll consider it an act of war, but when NATO sends troops in to sort things out Russia starts killing them, so America starts threatening nuclear action.
As this fictional story is set up (usually through TV and radio broadcasts in the background) we’re introduced to a selection of Kansas residents, each going about their lives unaware of what’s about to happen. There’s the farmer’s daughter who’s ready to get married the next day, there’s the doctor preparing to give a lecture to a group of students at the University of Kansas hospital, and there’s Steve Guttenberg, playing Steven (must have been a huge leap, that), a medical student trying to get home.
When the bomb eventually goes off (it happens around 40 minutes into this two-hour film), the special effects are unsurprisingly modest for a TV movie made in the ’80s. Stock footage of nuclear explosions is mixed with wholly unconvincing shots of fake mushroom clouds (they were apparently created by injecting colored oil plumes into a tank of water) and shots of people with cheesy X-ray effects overlaid to make it look as if the radiation is showing their skeletons. I haven’t been hit by many nuclear bombs in my time but I’d imagine I’d be turned to dust before anyone got a sneaky peek at my ribcage.
The aftermath is significantly more convincing. The filmmakers co-operated with the city of Lawrence in Kansas who willingly allowed its streets to be ‘decorated’ with smashed windows and upturned, burnt-out cars for a few weeks, and the result is an effective post-apocalyptic environment that may be a little understated (a message at the end of the film explains that the real devastation would probably be far greater), but still manages to depress.
Apparently, when it was originally shown on TV in the US, no sponsors bought commercial time for any scenes after the bomb goes off, meaning the final hour of the film was free of commercial breaks – just as well, because it would have really ruined the mood.
The make-up effects are disturbing at times, with hair loss and charred flesh on display. The odd dead cow or burnt-out body are grotesque cherries atop a cake cooked at gas mark 70,000.
At times The Day After dabbles with social commentary. The campus hospital at the nearby university starts running out of staff and supplies and considers taking the morally dubious stance of locking the doors to any more patients who turn up. When aid arrives only some is given to the hordes of starving people, and when the aid workers explain it’s because they have to move on to the next townand help them too, the people revolt. Another scene shows members of the public being executed without trial.
This is undeniably bleak, but it isn’t really necessary and only serves to keep things interesting. The real story is the devastation caused by the bombs and how it affects both the environment and the normal people we were introduced to beforehand.
I, like many of my age, saw this when it originally aired as a class assignment. It had a great impact on me, as the cold war was still going strong and the threat of a nuclear war was something that people still thought about. The movie may not be the greatest ever made, but the acting is more than adequate, especially from Jason Robards, and the script was far better than any other movies made for television at that time. I recommend it to anyone, even those with a low tolerance for grossness (radiation sickness is shown in progressive stages, and it is not pretty). It’s dark, depressing, and if you get into it you will definitely need to follow it up with a musical or cartoons just to lift your spirits again. Still, the subject matter is not something that can be portrayed positively even at a tv-movie level of realism.
A lesson with images
Author: sparks401 from United States
9 February 2005
I was a naval aviator deployed aboard the USS Ranger (CV-61) when I first saw this film. The show had aired back in the States some time before the film reels (this was before video tape decks were commonplace) were flown out to our Battle Group, so we knew that the telecast had had a big impact on the American public before we had the chance to view it.
That didn’t matter. The film had as great, and possibly even more of, an impact on those of us out on the “tip of the spear” as it did on those back home. The military characters seen in the film were not actors — they were contemporaries of ours, some even familiar faces — so we felt a true connection to the story.
The tension between the US and the Soviet Union was real and nobody knew better than we how nasty things could get in a short period of time. Even as we watched the film over the ship’s closed circuit television system, Soviet military units were intent on locating and targeting our Battle Group. Our job, our daily routine, was part of the story, which emphasised the point that we were responsible for keeping the peace and to not allow events to escalate as we all feared could happen.
The reaction I remember most from this film was worry for family back home. -SPOILER- The one airman who left the silo area to reach his family before the missiles arrived displayed a sentiment that we all felt. No one aboard our ship would shirk his duty, but we all understood the sentiment that once duty is done, family is foremost in mind.
The argument could be made that the film was rife with error, but I maintain that it ultimately succeeded in what it was designed to do…make people seriously consider the consequences of nuclear war. That point was not lost on those of us aboard the Ranger at the time. While I watched the film again just recently (21 years after the first viewing), the lesson was still not lost. We may or may not be vulnerable to such a massive strike as what was feared back in the 1980s, but nuclear terror is still a very real possibility. It is as imperative now, as it was then, that we ensure that this type of calamity is never visited upon anyone, especially those about whom we love and care.
Yes, better special effects would make from some jaw-dropping images, but would that improve upon the film’s message? In my opinion, no.
A good film – critics are missing the point.
Author: germanman from The Real LA – on the South Coast
2 July 2002
I first saw the film as a high school student attending a Department of Defense school in Germany in the early 1980’s. The film was shown in school and it scared the bejeeezus out of me and many of my fellow students. We were dealing with Red Army Faction terrorism, car bombs, bomb threats at school and only a few hundred miles from the border to East Germany. The concepts were quite accurate: if the eastern bloc came over the border, then the ONLY NATO response could be to fight a delayed retreat, blowing up roads and bridges as the US and Nato forces were pushed back and most of Germany would have fallen to the Eastern Bloc before any offensive action could have been taken. The scenario leading to the nuclear attacks are quite real and plausible.
The critics say the film was not graphic enough (they prefer things like Threads) or too graphic (prefering more subtile films like Testament ). There is no need to be totally graphic and accurate in portraying the events. Yes, we know it would be worse. But the goal is not to gross everyone out. We want younger audiences to see the film too – and that would never happen with something like theads. Likewise, a mored emotional but action lacking film would not draw in the audiences. The purpose was to ‘get the point accross’ and I think it did that very successfully – bad acting, flubbed lines, stock footage and all. It showed enough of the circumstances surrounding the events for those who had some education in things could recognize issues and say,”Yes thats right” while not being overly graphic so that only adults could see it.
If you want to see an action movie about nuclear war or you want to see a touchy-feely emotional treatment of the losses due to war – this film is not for you. The purpose of this film is to show what nuclear war may be like (in a very superficial way) and to remind everyone that it must NEVER happen again. Back in the early 1980’s with the Soviets under a rotating leadership of old hardliners and the US with Ronny talking smack – the threat was very real and the reality check this film delivers was needed. It doesn’t play as well in the year 2002 – but you must remember when a film was made when you see it.