ESSENTIAL TELEMOVIES: The Day After (1983)

In the period being discussed, roughly 1975-1995, the American miniseries took on some enormous topics, historical pageants and outrageous stories.  But, not everything deserved a multi-episode miniseries.  Some movies only needed one night and one sitting.  They are what we will call “Essential Telemovies.”  I’ve used two previously (“The Woman He Love” to show off Jane Seymour and “Bella Mafia” to show off how trashy and gleeful American television could get), but there are a bunch I would like to slip into the Miniseries Marathon because they play and behave like miniseries.  In fact, their shorter length probably made them classics, and some might have been completely forgotten up against miniseries powerhouses. 

Few telemovies are as famous as “The Day After.”  What happens after the nuclear bombs go off?  This movie was endlessly discussed before it aired, it was presented very uniquely and ABC followed it with a round-table panel about nuclear war.  Not every child of the 80s will remember it, but my school actually recommended that parents sit down with their children and watch (and it was taught to me again in college in the early 90s as a demonstration of the world’s manic obsession with nuclear war in the early 80s).  There were guides to the movie.  You couldn’t miss the hype.  Ultimately, the excitement bagged 100 million viewers!  Roughly half the country watched “The Day After” on one night in November 1983.  I don’t know whether or not anyone learned anything profound and maybe it was just entertainment, but it’s impossible to ignore it as a watershed of American television in this time period.

Of course, the world-at-large helped stir up controversy on a daily basis.  Hawkish Ronald Reagan was busy denouncing the Soviet Union as “the Evil Empire” and every gunshot in every foreign country seemed to have US versus USSR meaning behind it.  This was before Gorbachev and his reforms; this was the era of the cranky old Soviets leaders, whose names are barely remembered in the West as they came and went so quickly.  Hardliners ruled the world, from Reagan and Thatcher and their NATO allies to the scowls of their opposites in graying Communist Warsaw Pact members (whose names were never forced on us because we were taught there was no news from behind the Iron Curtain–how many Soviet leaders came between 1982 and 1985?  Didn’t it seem like they were constantly dying and being replaced?). 

Most schools had given up on air raid drills where kids crouched under their desks, but the Emergency Broadcast System still ran those piercing tests always at the most inconvenient moments of family television time (that was just the point, but we just grumbled).  The threat of nuclear war was still strong, not Cuban Missile Crisis strong, but strong enough that Reagan ordered the largest build-up of military might the world had ever seen.  We were constantly being told that there were enough nuclear missiles to blow up the world many times over.  The world was still scared that someone would press that button.

And though the thought of nuclear fallout was not new, there had never been one that showed what happened after the bombs went off.  No one could know  We had to extrapolate from what atomic bombs did to Japan and what tests showed.  Three Mile Island had leaked, but Chernobyl had not.  Would the world be wiped out?  Would we all die slow horrible deaths from cancer?  Were there underground bunkers build just for the notables? 

“The Day After” aimed to answer those questions, and still wanted to entertain.  This was fiction, but just barely.  Nearly 30 years later, nuclear war seems almost trite.  What the hell were we so worried about?  Why would we start a war that would kill us all?  But, that’s history for you.  “The Day After” certainly had the feel of a miniseries (and it was originally filmed as a two-nighter, edited down by nervous network executives to fit into just one night), it has all the hallmarks of one, but it’s abbreviated run-time makes it almost scarier, more immediate.  In under 2.5 hours, we would see nuclear devastation.  That certainly seemed far more relevant than yet another celebration of American power masquerading as history (the colossal “Winds of War”) or the giddy pleasures of Sidney Sheldon (“Rage of Angels”).  “The Day After” was now.  Any day could be the day after.

Paranoia seems absolutely normal to the military when the film begins.  On a base in Omaha, Nebraska of all places, there is a briefing that says where all important US leaders are and then where any suspicious nuclear warhead movement might be.  “Coffee, General?” he’s asked after buckling himself in and sitting down after the briefing.  Nothing out of the ordinary today. 

I would like to also propose the movie is meant to be incredibly entertaining in a stupid way, like the disaster movies of the 70s.  Big stars, big natural occurrence (usually), so many people will die if not for the vacationing vet will be able to save everyone.  “Towering Inferno,” all four “Airport” movies, and on and on.  This actually does follow similar patterns while also being miniseries-like, all that for the people who did not want to be bothered with the main point. However, those had happy endings.

Then we get to Kansas.  There is a tuneful Copeland-esque score (actually adapted from Virgil Thompson), overhead shots of farms and corn silos and peaceful suburbia, blond kids in music class, cowboys in stockyards, milk production and baseball fields.  In other words, pure Americana.  We’ve only missed ma in a gingham dress.  Life is idyllic.  Nothing is wrong in Kansas, except for a news report about more Soviet build-ups along Eastern European rivers, though no one is paying attention to that. 

In case you missed that this is strictly the American side of things, good old Jason Robards, as squeaky clean as you can get, is on board as a doctor at a Kansas City hospital.  He’s a gosh darn trustworthy as President Reagan!  He teaches a class and then takes a fine upstanding Asian resident on his rounds, where a perky black man tells him he just had a hospital meal of “turkey, yams, beans…nurse says she’s getting me some ice cream, but she didn’t come back.”  “What flavor you like best?” Dr. Jason asks.  Yup, we get it.  Hokum is here and it’s not leaving.  This is Middle America, everything worth saving about this great land of ours.  Forget the quirky liberals, celebrities and politicians on the coasts, Dr. Jason Robards and his grinning hospital patients are what we’re fighting for.

Even soldiers are smiling.  A nice cultural mix (a white guy who “falls in love every weekend,” a guy who reads a newspaper, a redneck and a black guy) is aboard a helicopter, a happy little microcosm, not paying attention the newspaper reader’s warning that there might be trouble somewhere.  Sure, there are nuclear warheads in this Eden, but no one is thinking about them.  Heck, Dr. Jason’s daughter is moving to Boston and even the folks who live next to the nuclear base simply wave when soldiers come and go.  News is simply background noise. 

When Jason comes home with flowers, an idea to go to the drive-in and “neck” with his wife Georgann Johnson, she knows something is up.  Both are upset over their daughter’s impending move.  Just as Georgann is getting started on a rant, there is a “special report” signal on the TV.  “East Germany sealed off the borders to West Berlin,” the anchor reads.  This is worrisome.  “I just want to go upstairs and get into bed,” Georgann tells Jason, “with you.” 

Equally unconcerned about the world around them is the family of John Cullum.  Daughter Lori Lethin, days from marrying Jeff East, who wants some before the wedding, dashes upstairs in curlers to get her diaphragm, which has been snatched by sister Ellen Anthony, all while an annoying brother badly plays a clarinet.  John is thoroughly annoyed by the noise interrupting his television viewing, though he does concentrate when another special report tells of more menace from the Soviets.  We hear that if they don’t back down by a certain hour, it will be “regarded as an act of war.”  The President has put the military on a “stage two alert.”  Mom Bibi Besch has to ref the fight between the sisters, ending the conversation with a demand that one daughter come “help with the casserole.”  Only John pays attention.

“God, it’s 1962 all over again,” Georgann says in bed.  Now we’ve officially hit a panic button.  In 1983, bringing up the Cuban Missile Crisis was a sure way to rattle the masses.  She and Jason rehash the incident, but only in their own context.  “I swear we made [their daughter] that night,” Georgann remembers fondly.  “It’s not gonna happen,” she chirps.  “People are crazy, but not that crazy,” Jason says and they go on to joke about friends that have canceled a vacation.  “What if it does happen?  What do we do?” she wonders at the very end of the scene.

John is puzzled, but the American flag on his lawn waving as his daughter sneaks out with her boyfriend on his motorcycle seems to placate him for the time being.

Not pleased by the turn of events is William Allen Young’s wife (this was before he landed in “Sins,” mind you).  He’s an airman who has his leave schedule disrupted.  He tries to assuage her that “we just have to check things twice instead of once,” but they are supposed to go to her mother’s with their son.  She immediately regrets her tantrum, so he goes into one.  It starts off happy enough, since he’ll be done with his service in “five and a half months,” but he’s soon snapping, “it’s an alert…it’s strictly by the book.”  Yes, we know, they fight out of fear. 

The next morning, things seem very average.  John and his brood (except possibly slutty Lori, who was out all night) slop the pigs, Jason kisses his wife and goes to work.  Lori is getting married the next day and they are uneasy about change, but sassy sister Ellen listens in before being shooed away.  “The whole world is holding its breath waiting to hear what you two are talking about,” she yells at John and Lori.  If only, Ellen.  If only. 

At the hospital, Jason and a fellow doctor wonder what will become of the world.  Rumors are that Moscow has been evacuated.  “Where does one go from Kansas City, the Yukon?” Jason is asked.  He has no answer.  No answer. 

In Lawrence, Kansas, Nurse JoBeth Williams wonders who is in charge of the hospital in case an evacuation is needed.  She can only find Dr. Calvin Jung, who declares, “I’m only a Resident with 150 bodies to examine, most of them unfortunately male!”  He’s actually examining potential military recruits, including a very young Steve Guttenberg.  JoBeth goes back to work, taking Amy Madigan to maternity since she’s about to have a baby.  Jeff and Steve hear on campus that “the Soviets have just invaded West Germany.”  How will NATO respond?  One student is a cynic, saying nothing will happen.  “Did we help the Czechs, the Hungarians, the Afghans or the Poles?  We’re not going to nuke the Russians to save the Germans.  I mean, if you were talking oil in Saudi Arabia, then I’d be real worried,” she groans, basically summing up every one’s understanding of US foreign policy throughout most of the last decade. 

Some people are truly paying attention now, but no one knows quite what to do.  Steve decides to visit his family in Joplin and can’t get a ride with anyone, and there are streams of cars evacuating the town.  His tight jeans and fit body do the trick and a man in a truck takes him, though the gun hanging over his head worries Steve a bit.  Jeff goes to the barber to get his pre-wedding cut, and there John Lithgow is hogging the conversation, noting that the President’s speech that night won’t say much.  “He’ll tell us what we want to hear, keep a low sweat stain,” John says, before wondering aloud just how much damage could be done. “Well, maybe they’ll contain it.  After all, I’ve still got symphony tickets for tonight,” he says, as a way of placating the others.  Jeff is the dopey one, still thinking Kansas is safe.  “There is no ‘nowhere’ anymore,” John schools him, especially since they are so near a military base.

Jason is in the middle of the traffic exodus when the emergency broadcast signal comes on.  Frankly, in the case of an emergency, I never expected to hear a really bored young woman giving instructions, but go figure, that’s just what happens.  She tells everyone to go to a shelter, “while there is no immediate danger to the Kansas City area.”  John Cullum makes plans to fill up water jugs for the cellar and Jason waits in an interminable line for a pay phone before giving up and driving his Volvo back onto the highway.  The market is a melee, with people fighting for every available item.  Jeff is just trying to buy orange juice when the man in front of him announces the Russians have bombed a US ship in the Persian Gulf, but “we bombed ’em back.” 

Here’s the con of the movie: we’ve already seen 45 minutes of the movie and it’s just now that the military is leaping to action, juxtaposing their frantic efforts with the rather quiet planning or downright indifference around them.  That’s a lot of time spent on character development.  Now, everything is important, but this movie only runs 2 hours and 8 minutes.  Anyway, in one house, only a young boy knows the military has been deployed because his farmer father has taken mom upstairs for a quickie before lunch.  John Cullum wants his wife to get everyone the basement, but Bibi whines, “can’t you see how much I have to do?”  “Don’t you know there’s almost a national emergency out there?” he asks.  “It’s just going to have to go on without me because your daughter is getting married and I’ve got 67 mouths to feed!”  Ellen wonders, “there’s not going to be a war, is there?”

Indeed, there is, Ellen.  Indeed, there is.  The General is asked for the all-important keys and the military base is a beehive of activity.  But everywhere else is eerily quiet.  Steve is dropped off by the bear truck driver (doing everything but waving the red hanky in his right pocket, if you know what I mean), and as he walks along the road, he sees only animals and hears nothing.  Inside the base, the keys are inserted and then turned.  Stock footage of a rocket going into the air is used, along with special effects that show the town rocking, the horse bucking and the missile going up and away from the hole it just left among the quiet farms.  More missiles follow as everyone stops to watch them streaming up into the sky. 

John Cullum tries to get his brood into the basement, but Bibi insists on making the beds until he forces her down the stairs and she howls with realization, a big King Lear-like moment.  William and his mates arrive at the base too late for the detonation.  No one knows who fired first, but one of them knows it doesn’t matter.  “Either way, we’re going to get hit,” he announces.  They argue about what to do.  William says, “the war is over” and wants to get home to his family, but others want to follow protocol.  And others want to go underground into the supposedly safe bunkers.  William does not go into the bunker with the rest.  He’s taking his chances racing back to his family. 

When everyone is confused as to what the missiles are, John Lithgow knows.  “They are on their way to Russia.  They take about 30 minutes to reach their target,” he warns everyone. 

Once the air raid sounds go off, Kansas City goes into panic.  Bells are going off everywhere, cars crashing, people running.  It has the feel of a 70s disaster flick, with the leads constantly intersecting each other, but then a mushroom cloud overs the city.  Everything stops.  Clocks, cars, electricity.  William runs from his car, but Jason is smart enough to stay down in his as a giant mushroom cloud and furious special effects dominate the next few minutes.  Yes, a TV movie with special effects.  Because no one knew exactly what would happen, they kind of assumed, so we see people being radiated down to just their bones, vaporized instantly.  Stock footage of burning buildings and such help, but really it’s the special effects of fire and wind that are most dazzling.  For a few minutes, as we cross the halfway point of the movie, it’s Armageddon.  It’s permanent death and destruction to any living organism.  There are, of course, some inconsistencies.  The lead characters never seem to be affected, no matter how close they got to anything. 

In John Cullum’s basement, the family members are safe from the fires and winds above them, though what they will encounter when they inevitably have to leave, no on can say.  John tells his family they will have to relearn a great deal once things are sorted.  “I don’t know much about radiation,” John says.  “What’s radiation?” asks Ellen.  That’s an important dialogue.  The government, the military, they gave the American people (and one can assume the Soviets did the same), only the most basic information.  So, no one really knew for sure that radiation can burn a person, what kind of cancers will arise, genetic deformities.  The military people are somewhere else, so it’s just going to be the salt-of-the-earth people left to figure it out.  Trial and error won’t be easy, but there will be survivors. 

Dr. Jason feels safe enough to wander through the campus, which is covered in ash and plucky students under John Lithgow are trying to figure out what works with the planet now under a completely new law of physics.  Jason Robards, who was closest to the explosion, tries to take charge of the fear and lack of knowledge, but it’s too much to harness.

Steve Guttenberg is caught looking for food at John Cullum’s house, but John invites him in.  There will no doubt be a lot of that in the coming period, but this time it ended in a friendly way.

At the hospital, Jason and his team are forced to improvise since there is no electricity.  Flashlights guide surgeries.  Jason worries that they may be “the only hospital within 100 mile radius.” “Too late to be a dentist,” cracks Nurse JoBeth, who never met a line she couldn’t deliver without heavy acid.  Jason pauses to wonder what the rest of the US cities look like now. 

For information’s sake (and it may be true), Jason and JoBeth see a few roaches and Jason remarks that they are “impervious to radiation.”  “Man’s legacy,” he calls them, which is a bit strange because men didn’t create roaches!

Frustrated at being cooped up inside the basement for five days (including the one that would have been her wedding day, Lori starts to go stir crazy.  “It’s only been five days and I can’t remember what [Jeff] looks like!”  This is just the beginning of her harangue, and it ends with her running out of the house.  Dead animals and a world covered in horrid soot seem like “a beautiful day” to her, but Steve, who has generously offered to follow her as a favor to the family for letting him stay, tells her that “it only looks that way…you can’t see it, you can’t feel it, and you can’t taste it, but it’s here, right now, all around us.  It’s going through you like an x-ray, right into your cells!  What do you think killed all these animals?” he asks, trying to get her to understand just what has happened.  He is able to chase her back inside, where she finds her wedding dress. 

William is still trying to get home, wherever that may be, having to join the long lines of people wandering around the streets trying to figure out where to go and what to do.  They resemble an army of the dead already. 

Inside the hospital, which has ballooned into every nearby building, the situation is fast becoming untenable.  “Bolt the doors!” Jason tells all of the complaining underlings who rattle off the problems.  He wants to treat the sick, but medications are running low, people are stealing and rats are in danger of spreading cholera.  In the morgue, Dr. Calvin is asked if he’s heard about the “firing squads” shooting people who commit crimes.  “Without a trial?  That’s crazy!  Go back to work,” he orders! 

The movie’s most important exchange comes between Jason and Amy Madigan, who feels her baby has not arrived yet because “if you had a choice, would you want to be born into a world like this?”  Amy lays out the political arguments, the social realities and the grimness of possibility all in a concise speech that hammers in nearly everything the movie wants to say, in a simple and concise way.  “I can’t argue with you,” Jason replies.  “Argue with me, give me a reason, tell me about hope, tell me why you work so hard in here,” she begs, asking for a dialogue on why things like “hope” would still possibly matter, and he has no argument for her. 

As William wanders from camp to camp with an odd little hermit he’s met, Lori keeps cracking, this time thinking Jeff is in the bunker with them and planting a big kiss on him, which takes Steve by surprise since it’s really him she’s kissing.  John Cullum starts rattling off the farm losses and Bibi says they are “lucky to be alive.”  “We’ll see how lucky that is,” he groans. 

The radiation count outside goes down to levels that are considered “safe” by the doctors, so people start leaving their hovels, bells ring to announce it.  That doesn’t mean it doesn’t choke the lungs or hurt the eyes.  John Cullum goes out to survey his farm (the first thing he sees being the American flag, which has survived).  He and his family go and attend a church service in a bombed out church, where the minister can barely get the words out.  The family has to leave when Erin starts to bleed.  Their son is also blind, so Steve volunteers to take them to Lawrence to the hospital, but promises to bring them back.  Using one of the surviving horses, Steve hitches up a carriage and off they go.  The blind son ask, “what do you see?”  “The usual stuff,” Steve says, listing a few innocuous items, but none of the dead bodies. 

On the radio, the President says that “there is a cease fire” and that the Soviets have “sustained damage which is equally catastrophic.”  The speech is downright bizarre.  It starts off somewhat comforting, but quickly escalates into gloating that “there has been no surrender, no retreat.”  What the hell does any of that mean under the horrible conditions into which the idiocies of nuclear war have no plunged the world.  There is nothing calming about what he says, and people barely listen as they go about doing what they need to survive.  “That’s it, that’s all he’s going to say?” a student asks.  He wants details of the war from John Lithgow but another student answers correctly.  “What difference does it make?”  John gets philosophical, quoting Einstein in saying, “he didn’t know how they would fight World War III, but he knew how they would fight World War IV, with sticks and stones.” 

Jason finally collapses and wakes up as merely one of hundreds of patients.  JoBeth is there when he wakes up, but she has to quickly run over to William, who has lost his hair and is covered with huge slabs of infected skin.  His mind is barely holding on.  Outside the hospital, mass graves are being readied. 

But, just when it seems people might be organizing themselves a little bit, they realize it’s only a facade.  John Cullum attends a meeting of other farmers where they are instructed on how to plant crops and deal with soil and such, but no one understands the government mandates and none of it makes practical sense.  Forlorn, John goes home to his house to find a bunch of squatters cooking animals over a fire. He tries to talk to them, but one shoots him dead.  At the hospital, Jason is well enough to get up, only to find that JoBeth has died.  Unwell enough to work, and looking more sickly by the hour, Jason leaves Calvin in charge and goes to find his home, seeing all of the looting, death, firing squads and horror that he’s only heard about at the hospital.  Calvin’s special patient had been John Cullum’s blind son, but he can’t cure him, so Steve takes him home.  Steve himself is beginning to show serious signs of decay and he wanders into his school gymnasium, which is filled with bodies, but manages to find Ellen. 

With blood-curdling screams, Amy goes into labor.  The rest of the patients just stare, unmoved.  The baby cries, alive. 

Jason makes it back to Kansas City, which is just a pile of rubble.  Having finally cracked himself, he sees a few people at what used to be the site of his home and yells, “get out of my house!”  As Jason cumbles to the ground, the stranger comes to hold him.  Between the baby and the togetherness, there are signs of civilization.

But the movie ends with a title card: “The catastrophic events you have just witnessed are, in all likelihood, less severe than the destruction that would actually occur in the event of a full nuclear strike against the United States.  It is hoped that the images of this film will inspire the nations of this earth, their peoples and leaders, to find the means to avert that day.”

There we have it, American television when it had the power to think.  A decade later, the Soviet Union was gone and world leaders were dispensing with nuclear power (not that it ceased to exist).  The threat of a nuclear war became distant, almost laughable.  The threat of it had been enough to keep the world balanced for 40 years.  When it was no longer a real possibility, we would find warmongers using far less technologically advanced methods to keep the world in a permanent state of fear. 

Can you imagine anything like “The Day After” on television by 1993?  2003?  2013?  Absolutely not.  No one would even attempt it, and if they did, it would be telling a far different story.  It would be about the stars in it, it would be about thrilling special effects, and it would end happily.  There is no happy ending to “The Day After.”  That’s exactly the point of it.  “The Day After” actually mattered.  It made people think.

Categories: Essential Telemovies

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