Not to spoil anything for you, but at the end of the television movie The Day After, there is a paragraph written in white on a black background. It essentially states that the movie you have just seen was an attempt to show you the horrors that a nuclear strike could unleash upon a normal mid-American town and hopefully now you will write your Congressman demanding that we halt the proliferation of nuclear arms.
Which is all well and good, but makes for a lousy story. The movie’s admitted goal is social revolution, not mere entertainment. So despite the inclusion of some recognizable faces (perhaps less so in 1983) – Jason Robards, John Lithgow, Steve Guttenberg, the guy who played Holling on “Northern Exposure” – the real focus of the movie is not on the characters. Well, I take that back. There’s a slight attempt made at introducing the viewer to these characters. They’ve all got their own problems and issues, like any normal person would. But this is a minor attempt at humanizing the characters, and the movie just wants to hurry up and get to the mushroom clouds and total annihilation.
So it goes. I think the most effective moments in the movie were right before the bombs went off – the U.S. had deployed all of its missiles and the many citizens of Lawrence and Kansas City stood motionless watching dozens of nuclear warheads streaming up into the sky. Everybody knew that if the United States were sending off missiles, it could mean only one of two things: either the Russians had acted first and we were merely getting in a retaliatory strike, or we had acted first and the Russians would certainly send their response in due time. Either way, for a brief moment everybody stood paralyzed, watching in horror. What is like to know that you are about to die?
And then the bombs hit. The movie is pretty dated now, so the violence didn’t faze this viewer. In its initial airing, ABC had a 1-800 hotline set up to assist people who were traumatized by the images on-screen. I suppose the film did manage to show the total destruction well, but since it didn’t manage to make the characters into much that we could care about, their plight doesn’t seem all that pressing. Does that make me callous? Take Lithgow, for instance. He’s a science professor who is holed up in his building at KU following the blast. He desperately radios for somebody, anybody who is still alive out there. And that’s it. Nobody answers him and we get the concept, but we don’t really get to feel the fact that nobody is left. Am I asking too much from a made-for-tv movie?
Add to that the fact that there is no real narrative arc. They’ve tried to work something in to create more of a dramatic story when Guttenberg attempts to get to Lawrence to find medical attention for a young girl, but aside from that the action goes in one direction: straight down. Again, the movie tries to subvert any criticism it might get from this by telling us flat-out that its intent was more shock & awe than entertainment. The Day After was probably not intended for repeat viewings, so maybe this approach was admirable in context and during the initial airing.
In my review of Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, I wondered whether that film was intended only for the people who were alive during that moment in the course of American history. Its characters were broad, they served as metaphors more than actual humans. I thought that perhaps it was meant to remind us of the good side of humanity in response to that terrorist attack, and not really intended to stand the test of time or mean quite the same thing to subsequent generations. The Day After feels quite the same. I did not grow up in the midst of the Cold War, so this movie doesn’t affect me in the same visceral way that it certainly affected people who were there during that time. I don’t hold that against the movie at all – sometimes it’s okay to make a movie so specific.
But I don’t grade movies on a curve. A true classic need not require its audience to give it special consideration. I don’t fault The Day After for its approach, but I cannot quite commend it either. It is what it is and nothing more.
This review was written 05/02/2010.