Friday, March 23, 2007
The Day After, November 20, 1983
Imagine if we lived in a world in which the most ghastly visuals of death and destruction were displayed on television, and schools encouraged children to rush home to watch them. Well, we do live in that world, at least we did in November, 1983.
The Day After was a special effects laden made-for-TV-movie with wooden acting and dialogue. Billed by ABC television as "the most important movie ever made," it certainly propagated the biggest build-up and publicity of any movie ever made. Tossing character development and scientific fact aside, the centerpiece was a 6 minute orgy of unimaginable devastation of a nuclear blast. Witnessed on television by over 100,000,000 adults and children, those 6 minutes exploited every potential scenario of nuclear war, including vivid scenes of human disintegration. Thanks to a mixture of big budget effects and pentagon stock footage, those six minutes terrorized the nation.
A study from the Journal of Applied Psychology reported that just the commercial build-up to the broadcast jointly depressed and horrified the nation, even by those who did not watch the broadcast; and, "that The Day After and the surrounding controversy had a substantial impact on many dimensions including the salience of nuclear war, feelings of personal efficacy, affect related to the idea of a nuclear war, intentions to engage in anti-nuclear behavior, estimates of the probability that a nuclear war would occur, and beliefs about the likelihood and desirability of survival." The timing was significant, as well, with a newly instigated President Reagan pushing his Star Wars defense system and renewed warnings against communism.
Perhaps the most abhorrent aspect of the production was that children were encouraged to watch, even if with counsel. There were reports of children hiding in closets after the fictional blast, and, of course, no one dared point out that all that nuclear fallout was just Kellogg's Corn Flakes painted white. Nonetheless, where the movie truly succeeded artistically was the unforgettable imagery, images that would linger in minds for decades. There was the moment the world stopped--in this case, a ball game-- to watch the minute men missiles lifting into the air; the quick-cut editing of human flesh melting to bone; the moment of power failure seconds before the strike; the masses of burned bodies, literally in human piles. ABC, at least, showed a nuance of good judgment by withholding commercials after the blast occurred midway through the movie. While ABC attempted to psychologically right the telecast with a Ted Koppel special to sooth the nation, it felt more like a clever strategy to recoup ad time and extend the two hour event, particularly with Carl Sagan suggesting the movie soft-peddled the true horror of nuclear war. Sagan notoriously stated that nuclear proliferation was tantamount to both the U.S. and Russia standing in waist-deep pools of gasoline, one with 3 matches and the other with 5.
Beyond the television movie's fear-mongering and pandering focus and blow by blow account of nuclear devastation, there was at least one positive result. Many Americans began to protest continued development of nuclear weapons. President Reagan, however, writing in his diary, cited the movie as "greatly depressing him" and two weeks later he deployed two additional nuclear missles to Western Europe. Ultimately, the film only heightened the arms race and fears of nuclear war.
Sources: Blackwell Synergy
Steven Church's excellent essay, The Day After the Day After
Fallout from the Day After by John Niccum