"The war is over! It's over."
--Airman William McCoy

A made-for-TV movie about a nuclear war and its aftermath, starring Jason Robards, Steve Guttenberg, JoBeth Williams, and John Lithgow. It originally aired on the ABC television network in the United States in 1983, and over 100 million Americans watched it in its premiere, making it (at the time) the most-watched made-for-television movie in history.

The movie is set in (and largely filmed in) Lawrence, Kansas and the region around Whiteman AFB and Kansas City, Missouri. Whiteman was then home of the 351st Strategic Missile Wing, a Minuteman ICBM base in Missouri, and thus the area was a likely first-strike target in the event of a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. The first forty five minutes or so show various people going about their lives: tending their farms, preparing for their weddings, registering for college classes, spending time with their children. But these images of everyday life are juxtaposed with images of the United States nuclear forces drilling and tending the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal. As the film progresses, we see the central characters listening nervously to television and radio reports about border skirmishes between NATO and Soviet troops in Germany, and discussing the consequences of a war on their lives and communities. The situation rapidly escalates with the NATO use of nuclear weapons against Soviet ground troops, and a retaliatory nuclear strike by the Soviets against NATO headquarters. Ultimately, the situation climaxes with the launching of the Minutemen into a clear, blue sky, followed by the annihilation of Kansas City and its surroundings. This is then followed by the slow deaths of everyone else from radiation sickness, disease, or violence over the next hour of the film.

As I was watching it last night on cable, I was surprised at how vividly I remembered it, even though I was only eleven when it first ran on TV. I also remembered why I had nightmares about nuclear war for months afterwards. The thing that I found most disturbing about the movie itself wasn't the the moment when the bombs exploded, but the moments before. People watching, stunned, as plumes of smoke rise from the countryside when the missiles are launched, realizing that their lives are over. A woman making her bed, ignoring the spectacle of a missile silo belching smoke into the air on the other side of her cornfield, only to be dragged, screaming, down into the basement by her husband.

Lots of movies have been made about nuclear war, from On The Beach, Fail Safe, and Dr. Strangelove, to Threads and Testament, but The Day After is certainly one of the more unflinchingly grim (if propagandist) movies on the topic. It was certainly a product of its time, with Ronald Reagan in the White House sparring with the Evil Empire. The movie was not at all subtle, but then again, neither are nuclear weapons.

"Is anybody out there?
Anybody at all?"
--Joe Huxley

Addendum, June 5, 2004:

I recently purchased the DVD of The Day After, and the film has lost none of its visceral impact in the 20 years since its release. The DVD was released in 2004 by MGM, and has no frills included beyond a scene selection menu. There is no letterbox version since it was originally filmed in a television aspect ratio, and the audio is monaural.

One of the disappointing (though not unexpected) things about the DVD I purchased was that it did not include the Nightline special which followed the broadcast of the film. In the show, host Ted Koppel moderated a panel consisting of several notable people in the government or the nuclear debate, including then Secretary of State George Schultz, former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, former National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, conservative commentator William F. Buckley, Jr., and anti-nuclear scientist Carl Sagan. As would be expected, the conservatives largely decried the film as either unnecessarily scare-mongering or as being outright disloyal, while Sagan used it to reinforce his stated position on the extreme danger nuclear war poses for the human race. This forum was also notable for the first use of the term "nuclear winter" (by Sagan) in a public debate. Although many of the early theoretical studies of nuclear war (like TTAPS) have been either discredited or superseded by more detailed work, nuclear winter is still a consideration in large-scale nuclear exchanges.

The film is not rated, and though it was shown on broadcast television, I would think twice before allowing children to watch this. There are several graphic depictions of death (particularly during the nuclear explosions), and some of the images of people suffering from blast injuries and radiation sickness may be disturbing.

However, I think it's still a very important film for people to watch. Although the immediate nuclear danger is substantially lower now than in 1983, the combined nuclear arsenals of the declared nuclear powers contain tens of thousands of nuclear devices. The fact that other geopolitical concerns have taken over the public consciousness does not mean that the nuclear danger has gone away.

Postscript: the Minuteman II missiles stationed at Whiteman AFB were deactivated in July of 1995, under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. But it is still home of the 509th Bomber squadron which flies the B-2 Spirit nuclear-capable bomber. Thus it is still a likely target in the event of a nuclear war.

Notes on television viewership from http://lawrence.com/news/movie_specials/story/124521
Thanks to Gorgonzola for information on the filming in Lawrence.

The Day After

Yesterday, we laughed, you and I,

About what I don't quite recall

It could have been the paperback

I was reading or the song you were humming

Perhaps it was a joke

Or just that we were together

Now I sit here alone

In a crowd of mourners

Tears flow freely

But my eyes are dry

What place has sorrow

In a world where you

Blink and life's gone by

Life is cheap

Death is real

Sorrows are transient

Joys never apparent

Numbness holds all in thrall

Words are useless

Sympathy meaningless

What price sorrow

Where do lines get drawn

And who draws them

What drives mankind

Was death the release

Of a life gone to pieces

Or a wretched thief

Of dreams and hopes

Who can tell

I wish I knew

I wish I cared.

Numbness holds all in thrall

Yesterday, we laughed , you and I

Today I mourn, alone.


human condition

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