Ultimately "The Day After" is not so much a story as it is a depiction of what a nuclear war would be like that comes under the heading of "seeing is believing." Prior to the airing of this television film Hollywood showed what it was like to live in the world after a nuclear war in films from "On the Beach" to "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," suggested that a nuclear war would be so horrible that a president would drop nuclear bombs on New York City rather than go to war in "Fail Safe," and ended the Cold War satire of "Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" with a series of atom bomb's exploding set to the popular song "We'll Meet Again." But what they did not show was what that nuclear war would be like. Even the "Star Wars" universe assumed there would be a nuclear war some day, as did I, but depicting the horrors of such a war was never really done until "The Day After."
However, exploding mushroom clouds and the victims of radiation poison were not what was most memorable about "The Day After." The icon image from the film became the shots of the missiles taking off, with the people of Lawrence, Kansas looking up into the sky at the ICBMs headed towards the Soviet Union knowing that their missiles were heading for us. Suddenly it became clear that the true moment of horror would be when you saw those missiles because chances were you would never see the mushroom cloud that took your life. In fact, given the choice between being incinerated and surviving long enough to watch your loved ones suffer horribly, I think most people would hope for the quick death. This film turned those last few minutes of life from the old joke about how you need to bend over, put your head between your knees and kiss you ass goodbye into an enduring image of outright terror.
The worst moments of this film are the painful period between the missiles taking off and the nukes exploding. One of the silos is right next to the Dahlberg farm, and the emotion nadir of the film is Denise Dahlberg (Lori Lethin) comes down the stairs holding the wedding dress she will never get to wear and her father tells her to get into the storm cellar. Then Jim Dahlberg (John Cullum) has to go upstairs and drag his wife Eve (Bibi Besch) screaming and crying away from the bed she is making in a desperate attempt to pretend that the world is not coming to an end.
Jason Robards is Dr. Russell Oakes, who along with Nurse Nancy Bauer (JoBeth Williams) has to deal with the casualties following the detonations at a besieged hospital, and Stephen Klein (Steve Guttenberg) is the guy who takes refuge with the Dahlbergs. Joe Huxley (John Lithgow) is the college professor who gets to supply most of the relatively small amount of exposition the story requires: a student thinks they are safe because Kansas is in the middle of nowhere, but the professor is the one who points out "There's no 'nowhere' anymore" since there is an Air Force base and 150 Minutemen Missile silos spread halfway down Missouri, all constituting "an awful lot of bullseyes." When the missiles take off he is the one who knows it takes thirty minutes to reach their target, a fact that applies to the incoming missiles as well.
I remember the night of November 11, 1983 as I watched "The Day After" how ABC did not run any commercials after the nukes went off and that right afterwards the network had a special news program in which Dr. Carl Sagan introduced us to the idea of a "nuclear winter" and the fact that the reality of a nuclear exchange would be much worse than we had seen. To say that this was a sobering idea to give an audience that was already depressed by what they had seen, would be an understatement. Sagan, of course, was opposed to the use of nuclear weapons and condemned the arms race. Speaking on the other side, which is to say in favor of the concept of nuclear deterrence, was William F. Buckley, Jr., and what we got to see in that debate (which is still available on video) was that both were right.
It is rather amazing, given the history of humanity, that it has been almost sixty years since nuclear weapons have been used in war. Ironically, we now live in a world where we still believe that those weapons are going to be used, although now we assume it will be the work of terrorists (or an attempt to stop terrorists) and not a war between East and West. I would not be surprised if right now Hollywood is kicking around ideas of what it would be like the day after that sort of nuclear detonation, going beyond what we saw in "The Sum of All Fears." Hopefully it would be as successful at forestalling our worst nightmares as "The Day After" has been these many years.
In a reprise of the Soviet blockade of Berlin two decades earlier in 1961, the plot begins with a Soviet blockade of access points between East and West Germany, following by the massing of troops on the border between East and West. When the Soviet bloc troops move across the border, NATO responds by unleashing tactical nuclear weapons on the invading forces, destroying two German cities in the process. The Soviet responds by targeting a NATO regional headquarters in England. It rapidly escalates from there to a major exchange of MIRVed ICBMs, including electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons that detonate high in the atmosphere and knock out all electrical and electronic equipment.
All of the European developments are depicted via fast paced news reports and bulletins coming into a worried American heartland on what would have been an otherwise typical early September weekend as people went about and planned their lives. One of the more chilling scenes vividly depicts the contrast between normal life and unfolding nuclear exchange. Two children innocently watch television, unaware of the gravity of the situation, as their amorous parents slip upstairs for a quick interlude before breakfast. Suddenly a TV bulletin interrupts to report the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. The scene then shifts to a nearby Strategic Air Command base as klaxons wail and B-52 crews scramble to get their planes into the air. The film is set in Kansas City and Lawrence, Kansas. Jason Robards puts in a fine performance as a doctor and the central character.
Recently, motivated by a strong desire to see Threads again, I've been going through a kind of craving for nuclear-holocaust-flick nostalgia. Read more