Film - The Day After

The Day After

Nate McKenzie is infatuated with movies about disasters that lead to the demise of Planet Earth. Today he looks at The Day After...

In the late 1970's and early 80's America was still feeling the lingering effects of the Cuban Missile Crisis amidst the burgeoning Cold War. Fear was a very real emotion. Not the type that we know now from watching constantly negative news programs with their war-mongering and worry inducing hand-wringing but visceral fear of an impending war.

Numerous films were made in the 1980's illustrating this fear - or at the very least using it as a backdrop and playing off of it: Red Dawn and WarGames to name two. Even though Grave of Fireflies is set during World War II, it was made in 1988 and certainly has a voice that echoes the sentiments of what people in the United States, and moreover, the world, were feeling.
The Day After doesn't quite get the recognition that it deserves among the great films of the 80's. Perhaps because it isn't the empowering "Us against the World" semi-propaganda that is Red Dawn, or the cheeky bit with the happy ending, like WarGames.

Perhaps, it was simply too realistic.

Set in Lawrence, Kansas, the heart of the Midwest, The Day After is a cautionary tale, void of the sheen and gloss of typical Hollywood "End of the World" tropes. The story involves numerous characters who have no connection to each other. The first 40 minutes are spent introducing us to new faces before anything of significance actually happens. But that's what makes the rest of the movie so impactful.

When Germany closes its borders, and Russia invades Germany, the U.S. officials are forced to decide whether to once again become embroiled in a war that does not initially involve America. The country is put on alert and, inevitably, nuclear missiles are fired from the 150+ underground silos across the landscape of Kansas and Missouri. Not long after, those silos and the surrounding areas are hit by high-altitude explosions (ones that explode before impact with the ground itself) causing a massive EMP burst that shuts down all technology.

When the bombs explode people die. That may be trite to say but it is poignant; the film doesn't discriminate with the characters. A few of the main faces survive, but only for a while. The scariest thing about nuclear war is not a quick and relatively painless death in the first wave of explosion but living with the aftermath in a RAD-permeated world surrounded by people who would have regressed to a primordial state of survival of the fittest. The question posed is essentially, "Which is worse?"

I have been obsessed with Post-Apocalyptic World films ever since I was young. Something about the foreboding aftermath, the stripping of life to its bare bones - to borrow a line from Thoreau: "to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms" - making clear what is necessary and what is luxury, has always appealed to me. But I've encountered no other film that quite captures the gruesomeness that would occur in such an event quite like The Day After.

Ignoring the bad special effects (it was, in fact, a made for television movie) The Day After has other flaws; but in its concept is as powerful as any big budget war movie. The scenes depicting the initial nuclear blast and then those showing the effects of radiation fallout are gut-churning. I do not suggest eating anything after the first 40 minutes of runtime. Before I was even aware that this was originally a tv movie, I thought it looked and felt like one (much like The Stand). But I never judged it based on that lack of production quality because the message, the essence, was much too important. The Day After is eviscerating to any pro-war argument.

In a debate following the original broadcast, Astronomer Carl Sagan argued against the concept of nuclear detterence by saying "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." The Day After is a film meant to illustrate that the focus on building a war machine is an exercise in misguided focus.

In our current political world climate this message is as resounding as it was in the 1980's, 60's, 30's, and in 1914 when began our First World War.

In The Day After, the filmmakers make a point to never declare whether the U.S. or Russia fired their missiles first. Because it doesn't matter; either way, there are no winners and losers, only the survivors and the dead.

Image - IMDb.