- Movie Rating -

The Day After (1983)

| August 27, 2021

[This is a repost of a review of ‘The Day After’ that I did in 2013 on the film’s 30th anniversary, reposted here on the occasion of the new documentary ‘Television Event’]

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from ABC’s multi-million-dollar armageddon scare-drama The Day After is to question its purpose.  What are we really seeing here and why?  This is not a happy movie.  The filmmakers want to spend two hours soaking your senses in a real-world scenario of nuclear holocaust, not just the blast and fire but the long and lingering after effects so that by the end you understand the full devastation of these terrible weapons.  It’s not just the nuclear blast, the movie says, but the hopelessness of those left in the fallout.

First the good news.  As a movie, the filmmakers have avoided the temptation to make it entertaining.  They keep things pretty much at ground level.  The first hour largely introduces us to a gaggle of vaguely-written characters, home-spun Americans going about their daily lives unaware that tensions between the NATO forces (that’s us) and the Warsaw Pact countries (including the Soviet Union) is escalating into a full-scale nuclear exchange between the two superpowers.

Much of the focus of The Day After stays within borders of Lawrence, Kansas where the population goes about its business and hears about the deteriorating situation on the local news.  Some ignore it, some aren’t worried, some are concerned and at least one scientist guy (there’s always that one scientist guy) who understands exactly what is about to happen.  The fact that these characters are written at a surface level is not a knock at the screenwriter.  Without being given too many character traits, the characters are vague enough that we can project ourselves or our loved-ones onto any one of them.  We can see ourselves in the bright young scientist, the college kid, the farmer, the mother, the kindly old doctor.  This could be any one of us.

And then the unthinkable happens.  A series of nuclear weapons hit the ground in and around Lawrence complete with mushroom clouds, fire, red flashes and death.  The panicked masses are either burned alive, or vaporized in stomach-turning X-ray flashes.  This four-minute sequence is not for the easily squeamish but it is not done for sensationalism.  The point is to realistically deal what a nuclear strike might actually look like.  It is devastating but it is not exploitation.

The last hour of the movie where the material really hits home.  Those not hit in the blast and fire deal with the fallout, the hopelessness, the constantly rising body count and the complete lack of continuity.  The situation in Lawrence grows grim as supplies run out, death tolls mount and it becomes clear that no one from the outside is coming.  The hopelessness is really even more upsetting than that actual attack.  There are no attempts made to give us a ray of hope, and that’s a good thing.  The movie needs its grim tone. 

The only character in the movie that we follow with any regularity is a doctor played by Jason Robards.  He has a nice home, a nice job, a lovely wife and the skills to help the sick, but it is all for nothing when his home is destroyed, his wife is killed, the body count rises and his own body gives way to the radiation.  He loses his hair, a wound on his face gets worse and, in the end, he realizes his plight.  The last half hour is run through with very little dialogue and no music.  The movie ends with just the sound of the wind blowing and a fleeting cry for help.

If I’ve made The Day After sound like a long, sad, depressing experience, that’s because it is.  I don’t want to lead you into thinking that there is a ray of sunshine here.  Nuclear weapons are the single most terrible method of destroying ourselves that man has yet developed not just because of its devastation but because of its long-term effects and the people behind The Day After want us to understand this.  With so many nuclear weapons left in the world today, it is possibly that this movie could happen to us at any time.

The catharsis for The Day After really isn’t in the movie.  It is in the mind of the viewer.  When the movie was over, I stayed on briefly to hear some comments by Ted Kopple who suggested that the movie offers up the same questions offered to Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ ”A Christmas Carol.”  Are these the visions of things that will be or are they the visions of what could be?   In that sense, I think that The Day After does what movies are intended to do, to give us a first-hand scenario of the world that might be, not just for the better but sometimes for the worse. 

No, the movie isn’t entertaining, but it is perhaps important.  If the world needs to understand the devastation of these terrible weapons, then we need to see a window onto a world devastated by them with all of it’s visual and auditory language intact.  We want to think that perhaps our leaders were watching the film, that they we as aghast and horrified as we were and that their perspectives, like Scrooge, can be changed for the better.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1983) View IMDB Filed in: Drama