Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Powerful and Unsettling Vision

Dr. Landowska (George Petrie): There is a rumor that they are evacuating Moscow. There are people even leaving Kansas City because of the missile base. Now I ask you: To where does one go from Kansas City? The Yukon? Tahiti? We are not talking about Hiroshima anymore. Hiroshima was peanuts.

Dr. Oakes (Jason Robards): What's going on? Do you have any idea what's going on in this world?

Dr. Landowska: Yeah. Stupidity. It has a habit of getting its way.

It's been 30 years since "The Day After."

And when ABC concluded the initial showing of the two–hour–plus made–for–TV movie on this night in 1983, my guess is that the 100 million or so viewers probably felt more than a bit uneasy.

The imagery was powerful — very powerful, in fact, given the context of the times.

Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union had never been higher in my memory — less than three months earlier, the world teetered on the brink of disaster when the Russians shot down a commercial Korean airliner after it drifted into Soviet airspace — and what TV viewers saw on their screens that evening seemed entirely plausible.

In fact, articles prior to the broadcast warned that, if anything, the depictions of nuclear explosions and their effects were milder than they almost certainly would be in reality. But, sanitized though they might be, they were still very unsettling, and I recall that, after the movie ended, Ted Koppel told viewers reassuringly to look out their windows. "It's all still there," he said.

Then Koppel moderated a debate featuring, among others, scientist Carl Sagan, who likened the escalation of global nuclear tensions to a room filled with gasoline and two bitter enemies on either side, one with 7,000 matches and the other with 9,000 matches.

It wasn't an uplifting evening.

The movie was so unsettling because it was so real. It followed the normal, everyday activities of people in Kansas and Missouri — college students preparing for a new semester, a farm family making arrangements for a wedding, that sort of thing.

In the background were TV and radio news reports detailing escalating tensions half a world away.

Some people took the reports seriously. Most were indifferent to events on the other side of the globe, oblivious to pacts between nations — as, I fear, most people would be today. But some people took the reports seriously enough to begin making preparations for when the missiles began to go off.

It's true that things are more complicated today than they were 30 years ago. In 1983, the perceived threat really only came from one source, the Soviet Union. Well, OK, I guess you could include China, but the attention was on Russia and its satellites.

Today, it seems just as likely — if not more likely — that a nuclear strike would originate from a terrorist group or a third–world country, not a superpower. They don't work together or follow the same sets of orders.

That would make for a much more complex story if "The Day After" was remade in the 21st century.

As I say, the story was told primarily through these reports — perhaps inspired by Orson Welles and his radio broadcast of "War of the Worlds" 45 years earlier — and, given the times, it was reasonable to believe that the catalyst for a nuclear exchange would come in Germany. One thing led to another, and that was easy to believe, that events could escalate to the point where they were rapidly spinning out of man's control.

The Soviets tried to intimidate the United States into backing down in Berlin, and, when that didn't succeed, the Russians sent armored divisions to the border between East and West Germany.

From that point, one thing built upon another. In America, people went about their daily lives, still not heeding the warning signs.

Until the missiles started going off.

I thought then — and I still think — that most Americans would be in denial up to the last minute. I thought that point in the movie was prophetic. (I doubt that I will ever be able to prove it, though.)

Jason Robards was magnificent, as always, as a doctor/adjunct medical professor. Perhaps his moist poignant moment, the one that lingered in memory long after the movie was over, was of Robards weeping among the ashes of what once was his home.

Jobeth Williams played a nurse in a role that really wasn't as demanding of her as I expected, coming as it did after her performances in "Poltergeist" and "The Big Chill." They were probably the most recognizable stars in the movie. Others in the cast enjoyed varying degrees of popularity in the years to come.

It was a hard–hitting movie, a rare made–for–TV flick in that it took a cinematic stand and never gave viewers wiggle room. If this happens, the movie warned, all will be guilty and all will pay. There will be no innocent bystanders.

The scenes from the initial strike were horrific enough, but the scenes of the aftermath were downright terrifying — a nuclear wasteland where anything that wasn't already dead was dying. It made me wish that, if it did happen, I would go quickly. In fact, I remember deciding, as I watched the movie, that if I ever faced a situation where I knew a nuclear strike was coming, I would not seek shelter. I would go outside and wait for it.

Even though it was toned down, "The Day After" was a powerful and unsettling vision.

The story was rich with ironic opportunities that could so easily have been exploited — such as the farmer's wife who ignored the evidence of the unfolding disaster and continued to focus on preparations for the scheduled wedding of her daughter until the very last minute. But it seemed to me that, though the scenes of the nuclear attack were horrific, they were understated.

Nevertheless, the subject matter was so disturbing that many of the TV stations that aired the movie provided teams of counselors to help anxious viewers when it was over.

In spite of the self–serving rhetoric that is frequently heard these days, it's hard to imagine any modern–day network being that socially responsible.