- Movie Rating -

Television Event (2020)

| August 28, 2021

[This review is part of my ongoing coverage of the films screened at Birmingham Alabama’s 23rd Annual Sidewalk Film Festival]

I have a persistent theory that every movie is a window onto the times in which it was made.  This is perhaps illustrated no better than with The Day After, a widely publicized scare drama broadcast on ABC on Sunday, November 20, 1983 at a time when President Ronald Reagan was assuring Americans that a nuclear war could be winnable.  The film presented a bleak ‘what if’ scenario, depicting the devastating effects of a nuclear strike on Lawrence, Kansas, building up several vaguely-drawn characters, setting them against a nuclear strike and then spending an hour showing us the brutality of the fallout.  At every stage of production, the movie made the gatekeepers at ABC nervous, as well as those in Washington and members of the American Psychiatric community who feared that the movie would result in mass suicides.  That didn’t happen, but the movie was watched by an audience of over 100 million people.

The documentary Television Event recalls a window onto the time in which The Day After was made.  This was a time long before streaming, when television was dominated by three networks and a handful of budding cable stations.  Events like The Day After happened routinely but nobody had ever made a movie for television that looked like this.

The documentary lets us know right away that ABC executives thought otherwise.  They fought the very idea of a movie about nuclear war being presented to the American public especially at a moment when 75% believed that their country would be in a nuclear exchange with The Soviet Union within 10 years.  There were too many pitfalls with this kind of movie, particularly the idea that it might undermine the tensions between America and the Soviets, or worse, anger the sponsors and force them to pull out.  The end results were that Reagan turned his policy of a winnable nuclear exchange to a more peaceful solution and Orville Redenbacher made a sweet little profit from the advertising.

The documentary’s opening scenes are surprisingly funny given the film that resulted from it, largely because of the ridiculous fussiness of the very nervous executives at ABC who objected to every inch of the production from the depiction of the blast to a scene in which two sisters fight over a diaphragm.  Director Jeff Daniels (not the actor) gives us the template of what ABC was giving its audiences in 1983; everything from bad TV movies about The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders and teen pregnancy dramas starring 19-year-old Rob Lowe, to advertising which featured tacky Broadway-style productions of the network’s top stars singing about how classy their network programming is.  In the face of a project as sobering as The Day After, these things seemed almost obscene, but they also illustrate how the network was wasting its resources.

What begins as a funny look at nervous execs takes a serious turn late in the film when actress Ellen Anthony, who was 11-years-old which she starred in the film watches the footage of the destruction of Lawrence on a laptop.  She has tears in her eyes as she recalls that this was her hometown and that many of the kids in the film who were seen to be burned up in the blast were, in reality her classmates. In many ways, that’s that way that Americans saw the film.  They saw themselves.  They saw their families.  They saw their neighbors.  The characters were drawn just vague enough that we could project ourselves on them: the farmer, the doctor, the nurse, the college student, the mother, the minister.  We saw ourselves in these characters and imagined that Lawrence could be any town.  It was a what-if scenario made all-too-real.  Ted Kopple put the film into perspective by likening it to Charles Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’.  Are these the visions of things that will be?  Or are they the visions of what could be?

The good news is that we didn’t get into a nuclear exchange with the Soviets, but the debate still continued and those terrible weapons themselves remain to this day.  The only thing about Daniels’ documentary that I think is missing is a note on the current situation.  Yes, The Day After was devastating but it was also a movie of its time.  I think it might have been important to remind us that the fight still continues, that the situation has changed since Reagan’s time and that now we have The Taliban and North Korea to contend with.  That discussion, I think, needed to be part of the conversation here. 

So, too, is a discussion on whether or not a movie like this could be made today.  In a Zoom conference after my screening of Television Event, the director of The Day After, Nicholas Meyer, offered up the information that a movie like this is not possible with the current television landscape.  He said that he took the idea of updating The Day After to several streaming services and was flatly turned down.  Maybe people don’t want a window onto their times anymore?  Maybe.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2020) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary