Nicholas Meyer appears in person at UW Cinematheque for a screening of his 1983 TV disaster drama on October 7, preceded by a new documentary on its making on October 6.
The post-apocalypse is the stuff of countless stories, games, and Buzzfeed quizzes. When the more immediate threat of nuclear war gave way to the diffuse threats of the modern surveillance state, people almost became giddy in imagining their role in the aftermath of a destruction as total as nuclear war (or a zombie outbreak, the more lively alternative). It’s stuff that preppers spend oodles of disposable income on, similar to someone designing a vacation home they’d never use.
But during the time of the Cold War, when justified paranoia about the apocalypse was so endemic, even made-for-TV movies got in on the action. The Day After (1983), a film depicting what would happen if the Cold War actually ended in mutual nuclear bombing, came out at a perfect inflection point. This devastating threat was still new and present in American minds in the film’s Midwestern Kansas setting, before the dawn of Forever Wars and drone bombings. UW Cinematheque welcomes director Nicholas Meyer to present his original film on Friday, October 7, at 7 p.m., preceded by Television Event (2020), a documentary about its making, on October 6, at 7 p.m.
Meyer’s 1983 film, featuring a mix of notable actors of the time (Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, and Steve Guttenberg) and local people cast for maximum Kansas-ness, certainly has the quality of something conceived more as a “special event” than a true film. Individual plot threads are played for their hyperbolic human drama while still paling in comparison to the completely blown-out existential stakes of nuclear war.
The Day After’s exposition sets up tourism ad-like idyllic images of rural Kansas and its everyday inhabitants—from the Dahlberg family preparing for their daughter Denise (Lori Lethin)’s wedding, to the students and professors at the University Of Kansas. When someone remarks that Kansas City is functionally “in the middle of nowhere” and not at risk of harm from the impending war between the U.S. and Soviets, John Lithgow’s grad student character responds (with classic Lithgow relish) that “there’s no nowhere anymore.” It’s a line that instills maximum terror in the American viewer-base who’d develop newfound fears of their hometowns no longer being safe from violence. Surely enough, war does break out, and the Kansas residents are sheltering, scavenging, and developing radiation sickness in short order. While it’s full of drama of the highest order, there’s a schematic quality about it in the logical playing-out of its horrors being the entire point. So it’s telling that, in Television Event, Meyer reveals that he wanted audiences to view the dramatization “like a Public Service Announcement.”
Television Event, the 2020 documentary by Jeff Daniels (not that one) about the making of The Day After, is a relatively straightforward telling of events, as Daniels gathers a somewhat random collection of people who made the film happen. The Day After director Meyer is the star here, positioned as the enfant terrible (hot off his directing of 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan), who insisted on defying censors and filming all four hours of the script despite only two making it to the final cut. His devil-may-care attitude drives the idea of the original film as an heroic act, something necessary that provoked passion in its creators despite their hardship filming it.
The specter of Ronald Reagan looms over the film, too, as a then-U.S. president and by extension the American public’s avatar for diplomacy in the Cold War. Reagan functions as a sort of phantom studio head, the producers understanding that every jab at the outsized nuclear power of the “bad” guys is an implicit critique of the “good” nuclear powers as well. While censors and restrictive producers feature, the assumed disapproval of the Reagan administration provides most of the conflict.
Television Event shares the same task with many other historical documentaries: showing its audience that now-common tropes were radical in a different context. But the film arguably goes too far in this direction, highlighting nothing but the Sisyphean struggle to get this vitally important story to the small screen. Powers that supposedly made it difficult for The Day After to exist in the first place are also among the ones singing its praises in Television Event.
The accounts of The Day After‘s importance come mostly from network executives and producers, who all suggest a certain amount of patting-selves-on-backs. However, in this regard, the most bizarre inclusion stems from interviews with actress Ellen Anthony, who played the young Joleen Dahlberg (Denise’s younger sister) in the film. Despite playing a small role, Anthony is the primary actor who’s interviewed. She recalls, in prosaic detail, her awakening to the horrific power of humankind while making the film as a child actor. Even a key scene focusing on an argument between her character’s parents (John Cullum and Bibi Besch) gets extensive commentary, suggesting Anthony was one of the only ones who answered the casting call.
Focused as Television Event is on the controversies of the production, it also highlights, by omission, just how common these once-rare tropes have become in mainstream entertainment. Stories broadcast on primetime have come quite a long way since then, especially now that we’re several waves deep into the “golden age of TV.” (Consider, for a moment, these ’80s ABC executives discussing something like Hannibal.) So, while The Day After was unique in many respects, its quaint solemnity is still what sticks, making a roundabout argument for the omnipresent threat of death as a good way to make you actually fear it. And this is the good work of Television Event, too, which reminds us of the former popularity of this fear, and just how far we’ve come towards looking death in the face all the time.