The Day After

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Film * Nicholas Meyer * Good Old Fashioned Nukes * 1983


When I was a teen, the town I lived in would annually test their civil defense sirens. Not because we were particularly worried about a nuclear attack in the mid-nineties, but because I was living fairly close to Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant and hey maybe someday that thing will melt down and it’ll be a real bad day in Arroyo Grande, California. Anyway, I don’t think they do those siren tests any longer because they are alarming. Yeah, I know, they’re alarms huh-huh, but for real the peculiar tone those things make sounds like the world is ending. Once again, that’s rather the point, since they were originally used during the apocalyptic event of World War II and were continually deployed as a warning system for imminent nuclear war. This is partly the reason I used to really enjoy siren-test day. We’d get a little notice in the mail and I would specifically set aside the two minutes of the test to go sit outside and pretend someone finally let fly with the nukes. No, you’re weird.

The best scene in The Day After is about halfway into the film, where the movie just stops every storyline in its tracks to mark the moment when it’s all over. The only real sound is the mournful wailing of these sirens while everyone just freezes and watches the rising contrails of the Minuteman missiles lifting off. In a movie featuring a lot of vintage visual effects, this scene works perfectly. Even more than the mushroom clouds and the radiation sickness and the ensuing chaos of the immediate post-apocalypse, the utter stillness of this scene evokes more of what America would lose in the event of a nuclear exchange. It’s the moment where everyone realizes, oh shit, this is real, these things have been underneath us all these years and we barely gave it a second thought and whoops there they go. Those contrails and that siren can only mean one thing: they were either launched in retaliation or the retaliating missiles are on their way. It doesn’t matter which, you’ve got about twenty to thirty minutes to get out the way before your day gets extremely bad.

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This is normal for Kansas, right?

The Day After is a hell of a thing, but I suppose in the year 2017 it needs some context to properly understand. It was a TV movie, for one thing, and what might be difficult to understand for those of you who do not have tangible pre-Internet memories is that TV used to be a big deal. People would gather around grimy 19” screens and all watch the same thing at the same time. I know, just like those radio dramas of the thirties and forties but with washed out video instead of old-timey podcasts. The Day After was an event when it aired. Something like 100 million people watched this thing when it was on, which is incomprehensible in this day and age – we just don’t consume media like this any longer. ABC aired this film, and then followed it up with a special panel led by Ted Koppel with Carl Sagan, Henry Kissinger, and Robert McNamara, which shows how seriously this whole project was taken by not only the network but the country as a whole.

The film itself is a fairly straightforward disaster story. Yet Meyer sets The Day After apart from the run-of-the-mill Hollywood disaster flick. The movie is set in Kansas, because it’s more effective to have these events take place in the heartland rather than big coastal cities. The first hour follows a variety of everyday folk going about their lives because we need a human anchor for the apocalypse to follow. You’ve got an older doctor and his family, which is on the verge of becoming an empty nest. You’ve got an irrepressible young lady who’s about to get married to some goof. There’s the young black soldier who’s about to head off to New Orleans to meet his wife’s side of the family. Also Steve Guttenberg is there. So far, it’s standard disaster fare. The key to making The Day After effective, however, is the effort put into making the actual disaster as real as possible. The entire first hour of the film is spent setting up these characters and following them as they go through their mundane lives. Yet in the background, the entire time these things are happening, the radio and televisions are giving us exposition. It’s all kind of vague but as the film moves along these radio and TV alters get more and more urgent. The Soviets are mad about missiles staged near them. The Soviets are closing off West Berlin. The Soviets are invading West Germany. NATO has launched tactical nukes at Soviet troops. As the characters internalize these events, their actions become fraught until finally we get the scene described above.

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I guess that went as well as could be expected.


One of the more illuminating lines of dialogue comes a little before everything goes sideways. A bunch of fellas are hanging out in the barber shop, like you do, and are discussing the unfolding drama in Europe. Somebody dismisses the threat by saying something like “I’m not worried about this, why would anyone drop a bomb on the middle of nowhere?” Keep in mind these people are in Lawrence, Kansas, which isn’t all that far from Kansas City. A baby John Lithgow speaks up and says “there is no nowhere anymore,” and that’s all the truth we need in this matter. He is referring, of course, to the thousands of ICBM missile silos located throughout the Midwest and greater Western states. I just did a quick check and we’ve got that number down to a little over 400 active missiles, but in the heyday of the Cold War we had way more, and they lurked right underneath the heartland. I would imagine this fact escaped most people living in these areas, and the fact that they were a major target probably alarmed a lot of people. It’s easier to not worry about a nuclear attack if you don’t live near Washington D.C. or New York, but the reminder that not even Wyoming is safe would have been something of a wake-up call for a lot of people.

The plausibility of The Day After is rooted in the actual science of the movie, and unlike pretty much every other disaster movie ever made, Meyer went out of his way to ensure that the portrayal of a nuclear exchange was accurate. The scenario explained over the radio and TV broadcasts was feasible. Not unlike the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was plausible that a major conflict could erupt between the two Germany’s (yes, kids, when I was a lad there were two different Germany’s). There was every danger that the Cold War could turn hot at any given moment, and once that happened the possibility of nukes coming into play increased dramatically. From there, the attack itself was spot on. First, a preliminary EMP attack (later explained by my boy Lithgow as the film’s science-explainer) would take out all vulnerable electronics. The power grid, yes, but also cars and planes and anything with a computer chip or wiring in it. The film did a mostly admirable job depicting this, although I guess they didn’t have the budget to show passenger jets dropping out of the sky and later people are running around using flashlights, but whatever. By showing these things, and by taking the time to explain them, Meyer succeeds in rooting the apocalypse in reality, which of course makes the scenario all the more harrowing.

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They paid locals $75 to put on makeup and cram onto this basketball court and pretend to be dying. Sounds like a fun day, honestly. 

After the bombs drop, The Day After pulls no punches. I’m watching this 34 years after this movie aired – on television – and it’s still effective. Yeah, some of the effects are bad, specifically the “vaporization” bits when the missiles hit. The back half of the movie is dealing with the immediate aftermath, however, and watching these characters deal with radioactive fallout and widespread destruction is grim in the extreme. Characters who spend significant time exposed to the fallout get sick, and again Meyer depicts this realistically. It’s not pretty. Even the sheer charismatic magnetism of Steve Guttenberg is not immune to radiation sickness. The Day After is not here to make you feel better about the apocalypse. If you’re not fortunate enough to die in the initial conflagration, you’re going to have to deal with radiation, a complete lack of infrastructure and communication, and roving gangs of bloodthirsty hillbillies. The movie ends with our heroic doctor weeping in the ruins of Kansas City, and the only positive in that situation is that we know he’s going to die soon and not have to deal with the nightmare of the post apocalypse.

If there’s anything to be said about the accuracy of The Day After it’s that the scenario depicted isn’t quite dire enough. The film actually addresses this at the end, because it rolls a bit of text which explains that “hey, if a nuclear exchange actually happened it would be probably be much worse, to the point where there wouldn’t be enough people left to tell a proper story.” This is the same direction the novel Warday took as well. You have to limit the scope of a nuclear apocalypse story because otherwise you simply won’t have people to talk about. So Meyer dialed it back a little, and the film is no less effective for it. What’s especially crazy about The Day After is that it had a real effect on official policy. Reagan is said to have been particularly moved by the movie, and became a little less cavalier about the whole “mutually assured destruction” thing as a result. That’s not something many movies can say, but if you take the time to watch this upsetting little time capsule, it’s easy to understand why.

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