I fell down a rabbit hole and landed on an article about how the ‘Nuclear Freeze’ movement of the 1980’s disappeared from the public consciousness. Hundreds of thousands of people in Europe and America went to the demonstrations as a way to counter the US and President Reagan’s war talk in opposition to the Russians and the Soviet Union. But, if the events and large demonstrations are remembered at all now it is as a minor footnote.
As I was reading through the comments under the article that talked about the ‘Nuclear Freeze’ movement being deleted down the ‘memory hole’ a number of people mentioned the made of tv movie ‘The Day After’ with Jason Robarts as a Kansas doctor who deals with nuclear bomb attacks on the city he lives in. I reproduced the short article and blended in a few insightful comments from readers. I also featured a poster from ‘The Day After’ and a link to the movie trailer that was online. I saw that the full two hour movie was also on Youtube free. So, I watched the movie last night.
I watched the movie when it was first broadcast on national television on 20 November 1983. At the time it was a large media event. News stories featured many mentions in the weeks and days before the broadcast. Reagan supporters and war hawks objected to the movie because it was anti-nuclear war. The public might be afraid of the threat to go to war with the nuclear armed Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The Reagan’s secretary of state got to speak at the end of the movie to put a pro-Reagan slant to the implied anti-war message of the movie.
ABC then aired a live debate on Viewpoint, hosted by Nightline’s Ted Koppel, featuring scientist Carl Sagan, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Elie Wiesel, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, General Brent Scowcroft and conservative commentator William F. Buckley, Jr.. Sagan argued against nuclear proliferation, while Buckley promoted the concept of nuclear deterrence. Sagan described the arms race in the following terms: “Imagine a room awash in gasoline, and there are two implacable enemies in that room. One of them has nine thousand matches, the other seven thousand matches. Each of them is concerned about who’s ahead, who’s stronger.”
Watching the movie again thirty-five years later I can remember some of the parts from my first viewing. The movie is put together in a workman like fashion with opening shots of the men who man the local nuclear missile installations as well as local people new by. Interesting to see all the clothing styles and cars from the early 1980’s. A number of vignettes gives different unconnected characters a face for the viewer to place the story as human interest.
A central character is Jason Robards doctor at a university hospital. I remember the scene when he is on a highway packed with American refugees when two nuclear bombs go off in a city on the horizon. He ducked down below the dashboard as the initial blinding light of the bombs illuminates everything.
ABC couldn’t find a director who wanted to make the movie. Everyone figured the script would be cut down to satisfy censors. The US Department of Defense would not cooperate with the movie makers unless they had control of the script and had the Soviet Union clearly labelled as the country that started the war. Stock footage that the government had made of nuclear explosions was withheld from the film makers.
After the fights over what to leave in, what to leave out for the ‘family friendly’ American Broadcasting Company bosses and the government the movie was finally shown in a one night formate on 20 November 1983. About a hundred million people watched the movie – in 39 million homes. The showing got 62% of the televisions that were on at that time. ‘The Day After’ set a record as the highest-rated television film in history — a record held for the next thirty years.
Critics at the time where mostly Right Wing war hawks who thought the movie was helping the Soviet Communists by making Americans afraid of war. A few critics said that the movie seemed to sugar coat what a nuclear attack would look like. The director said that to show what really happens after a nuclear bombing would make the movie unwatchable and would never be shown on commercial television. Many claimed that children would be frightened by the movie and the idea of the US being hit by nuclear bombs. Leading up to the showing of the movie psychiatrist were featured on television and telephone hot-lines where set up to handle traumatized viewers. One psychiatrist warned that people should not watch the program alone.