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‘Convincing catastrophe’: What The Post’s TV critic wrote about ‘The Day After’ in 1983

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ABC’s “The Day After’s” aired on Sunday, Nov. 20, 1983. It was the TV event of the year, preceded by weeks of hype and worry about how it would affect viewers, especially kids. It remains television’s highest-rated movie. The Washington Post ran TV critic Tom Shales’s thoughtful, 2,150-word review on the Friday before it aired. “Everyone should watch it,” he wrote. “No one will be able to forget it.” Some 38 million American households tuned in (about 100 million viewers). Read the entire review below:

Nightmare For a Small Planet: ABC’s ‘The Day After’ – Convincing Catastrophe

Originally published Friday, Nov. 18, 1983

Who should watch it? Everyone should watch it. Who will be able to forget it? No one will be able to forget it.

Indeed, it could be argued that not to watch “The Day After,” the ABC film about nuclear holocaust, would be a socially irresponsible act, considering the public fuss that has preceded the broadcast and the fact that the program itself has achieved the status of an “issue.”

Thus it probably should be watched not so much because it is some sort of towering achievement in television (though achievement, of sorts, it is), but because after listening to all the back-and-forth on it, people ought to see the subject of the debate and make up their own damn minds. The film airs Sunday night at 8 on Channel 7 and will be followed, at 10:15, by a special edition of “Viewpoint,” with Ted Koppel, that will discuss the film and the unholy topic of nuclear war.

As has rarely happened in television history, a work of fiction has achieved the urgency and magnitude of live coverage of a national crisis. One can imagine an ABC engineer quivering slightly as he presses the button on Sunday night that will send the film into millions and millions of American homes. Despite some predictions to the contrary, those homes and the psyches in them are certain to survive it. Nor will the republic likely perish from exposure to this highly convincing nightmare.

Those lobbying for and against the film seem to think it will send many of those who see it scurrying into the too-eager arms of the nuclear freeze movement, or that it will spread a “War of the Worlds” panic through the land, as if ABC were shouting “Fire!” in a crowded country. The actual impact will probably be less dramatic but more profound–a pervasive shading of popular attitudes toward nuclear weaponry in general and the Reagan administration’s New Brinkmanship in particular–because the film forces one to confront the ultimate horrible possibility of the age. It does so within a framework that is dramatically serviceable and occasionally touched with brilliance.

To criticize a television network for taking a risk with an urgent and explosive topic like this, after years of innocuous and mind-numbing network time-killers, seems a highly counterproductive position. The one hopeful thing about “The Day After” is that a network was willing to chance it. There is no clear or present danger that those who find it politically objectionable will lack for access to the American public in expressing that view.

Though titled “The Day After,” the first half of the film is about the days before a nuclear attack destroys Kansas City, Mo. In that hour we are cursorily introduced to a number of characters who register as TV-movie typical Americans. Jason Robards plays a Kansas City surgeon, JoBeth Williams a nurse, John Cullum a farmer who is prepared with a fallout shelter for the emergency, Bibi Besch his wife, John Lithgow a university professor, Steve Guttenberg a student and William Allen Young as Airman 1st Class William McCoy, who stands at an emptied Minuteman missile silo and declares the war over even before the Soviet missiles have struck.

The film has the look and feel of a three-hour movie cut down to just over two, which it is (original plans were to air it as a two-night affair); some characters are barely introduced, the fates of others left dangling. But as now constructed, catastrophe approaches as a terrible swift sword–half-overheard news bulletins on television and sketchy reports of “a massive buildup,” a “Berlin blockade,” a violation of German air space, and then world go boom.

Director Nicholas Meyer and writer Edward Hume devised and executed some devastating images of horror striking the heartland. A mother looks out the window to see ICBMs being launched and her two small children, playing on the lawn, peering up in open-mouthed awe. A pudgy little boy kneels before a TV set dispensing bulletins on the approaching doom. The farmer’s wife compulsively insists on making the beds in the family home before her husband can drag her, hysterical, into the basement shelter as the missiles come nearer.

The sequence of the bombs hitting is superbly crafted. The simulations of destruction are intercut with tinted footage of H-bomb tests conducted during the ’50s. A little boy turns toward his father in a field and then both are vaporized in a flash of fire. There are no gory effects, only horrifying ones, and no attempts to duplicate the grisly scenes of Hiroshima survivors that have been shown as part of TV newscasts and documentaries.

In the second hour of the film, people suffer and die. The area around Lawrence, Kan., where most of the action takes place (and where the movie was made on location) becomes a society of stragglers, wanderers, looters, poachers–and corpses, some of them buried in mass graves. A man who survived nuclear attack is shot dead by homeless nomads who are victims of radiation poisoning. The picture of a post-apocalyptic world is unrelentingly bleak, as depressing as anything ever depicted in a television drama.

The last scene of the film, in which Robards figures prominently (and which Newsweek, in a cover story, had the bad manners to reveal in detail) is suitably and hauntingly grim. There should be a moment of silence. Those still watching will be “drained,” as Jerry Falwell said he was (on last week’s edition of “60 Minutes”), but there is reason to believe many viewers will have tuned out not long after the spectacular blast, because the scenes of sickness and social deterioration are quite hard to take. One couldn’t blame anyone for wanting to look away. It takes guts to see it through.

Those who want to see political chicanery behind the film will see it no matter what. Others can interpret it for their own purposes; retired general Daniel O. Graham, who heads a group called High Frontier that advocates installing “a nonnuclear totally defensive antiballistic missile system in space,” has said, “While I object to the implication in the ABC movie that the U.S. was somehow at fault in causing this hypothetical nuclear war, the movie does bring up an important point: Americans are naked to attack.”

Douglas O. Lee, chairman of Americans for Nuclear Energy Inc., said yesterday he views the film as not only antidefense but antinuclear in general. In a letter sent to executives of Fortune 500 companies, the group labeled the film “highly emotional propaganda for the antinuclear movement in this nation” and urged executives to “intervene directly to assure this ABC program does not receive endorsement from your products.” Lee said he is not advocating a boycott of those who do advertise on the program, but that a list of sponsors will be compiled nevertheless and they will be subjected to “negative publicity” after the broadcast.

And so on. The essential message of the film, beneath all the rhetoric from both sides, seems nonpolitical and contained within a brief exchange prior to the nuclear attack. The possibility is being discussed at the hospital and Robards says, “People are crazy, but not that crazy.” All ABC’s film really asks is, “What if they were?” There is enough madness in any week’s worth of front page headlines to make the “Day After” hypothesis plausible.

Indeed, it may be the very plausibility of “The Day After” that has particularly irritated those who have been busily denouncing it. Is it really such a stretch to speculate that “The Day After” would have played as less plausible during the Carter administration than during Reagan’s? Among other effects, the telecast of “The Day After” may inspire the president of the United States to say a few words on behalf of peace and coexistence.

One frequent topic of conversation about the film has to do with whether children should be allowed to see it. The consensus appears to be something as lurid as: They will be permanently scarred for life if they get a peep at even one frame of this hellish fiction. Please. We’re talking about children of the television age who can tune in monsters and murders virtually 24 hours a day.

If the little darlings can play global thermonuclear war at their local video arcade, they ought to be able to see what the real thing might look like.

Physicians for Social Responsibility, one pious antinuke group, demands that “younger children not see the film, and that adolescents be prepared for the film with prior family discussion.” The National Education Association has grandly issued its first-ever “parent advisory” for the film and NEA president Mary Hatwood Futrell says, “We believe that parents, under no circumstances, should allow their children to watch this program alone.” The magazine Nuclear Times quotes Wendy Roberts, a social worker in California, as declaring, “No one should see this film alone–not kids, not adults.” A group calling itself The Day Before flatly orders that children “who are usually in bed by 9 p.m. should not watch.” And Ground Zero, another antinuke group, recommends that children under 12 “not be allowed to watch this movie.”

In suburban Washington, teachers at some private schools have sent home letters to parents all but forbidding them from letting their tots get a gander at World War III. American parents are never lacking these days for advice on how to bring up their children and declarations of what is and isn’t fit for kids to see. There are nightmares and there are nightmares. A kid dreaming of a hatchet murderer in the closet after watching “Halloween” or some other horror movie on TV is one thing; a kid having a nightmare about the people of Earth blowing up the planet on which he lives is another. Children today have more access to world realities, through television, than children of any other time. Perhaps they should be permitted to see what adults are capable of perpetrating in the absolute worst-possible-case scenario.

“The Day After” will upset people. It ought to. But the post-program “Viewpoint” discussion is probably a wise move, not just good ABC public relations, because the program doesn’t engender much more than fear and dread. There may be therapeutic value in that, but there is danger in it as well.

By Monday morning, we will know some of the effects the program has had, but others will be long-term. Those suggesting now that it will cripple the national morale or turn us all into lily-livered cowards are, one hopes, underestimating the national fiber. If we can’t take a piece of speculative fiction like “The Day After,” we are weak and flabby. And television, with its steady diet of sweets and treats, will have played a role in making us so. With this broadcast, ABC takes a rare step against the commercial current. Network executives may be regretting that step already, but history will show, as politicians like to say, that they acted bravely.

“The Day After” opens with aerial views of the Kansas plain. They are almost heartbreaking in themselves (especially as accompanied by Virgil Thomson’s “The River”), because we know all this is going to be obliterated. The scene brings to mind the opening sequence–a flight over an American landcape–from William Wyler’s classic postwar film “The Best Years of Our Lives,” shown recently on Cinemax and other pay-TV services. Of course, there are not likely to be any postwar films after World War III.

In the Wyler film, a father who has returned from the war is talking with his teen-age son. The boy asks, “Say, you were at Hiroshima, weren’t you, Dad? Did you happen to notice any of the effects of radioactivity on the people who survived the blast?” The father says, “No, I didn’t. Should I have?”

Son: “We’ve been having lectures on atomic energy at school and Mr. McLaglen–he’s our physics teacher–he says that we’ve reached the point where the whole human race has either got to find a way to live together, or else . . .”

Dad: “Or else?”

Son: “That’s right. Or Else.”

That was 37 years ago. The sentiment has hardly become less appropriate. “The Day After” is a valid artifact of a justifiably fearful present. Perhaps it should have been called “The Last Years of Our Lives.” I’ll watch it again on the air Sunday night because I want to be part of the national communal experience of seeing the film. It’s not a great film. But it may prove to be a great experience.