‘The Day After’ and ‘Television Event’ Revel in Reagan-Era Scares – Tone Madison
Nicholas Meyer appears in person at the UW Cinematheque for a screening of his 1983 disaster TV drama on October 7, preceded by a new documentary about its making on October 6.
The post-apocalypse is the stuff of countless Buzzfeed stories, games, and quizzes. When the more immediate threat of nuclear war gave way to the diffuse threats of the modern surveillance state, people almost got giddy imagining their role in the aftermath of destruction as utter as nuclear war ( or a zombie outbreak, the livelier alternative). These are things that planners spend tons of disposable income on, like someone designing a vacation home they’ll never use.
But during the Cold War era, when justified paranoia about the apocalypse was so rampant, even made-for-TV movies got in on the action. The day after (1983), a film depicting what would happen if the Cold War really ended in mutual nuclear bombing, was released at a perfect inflection point. This devastating threat was still new and present in American minds as part of the film’s Midwestern Kansas, before the dawn of Forever Wars and drone bombings. The UW Cinematheque welcomes director Nicholas Meyer to present his original film on Friday, October 7 at 7 p.m., preceded by TV event (2020), a documentary on its production, October 6, at 7 p.m.
Meyer’s 1983 film, starring a mix of notable actors of the era (Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams and Steve Guttenberg) and local people cast for maximum Kansas-ness, certainly has the quality of something intended more as a “special event” than an actual movie. Individual plot threads are played for their hyperbolic human drama while pale in comparison to the thoroughly blown existential stakes of nuclear war.
The day after The exhibit features idyllic tourist-advertising-like images of rural Kansas and its everyday inhabitants — from the Dahlberg family preparing for the wedding of their daughter Denise (Lori Lethin) to students and faculty at the University of Kansas. When someone remarks that Kansas City is functionally “in the middle of nowhere” and not at risk of harm from the impending war between the United States and the Soviets, John Lithgow’s graduate student character responds (with classic Lithgow taste) that “there is nowhere left”. “It’s a line that instills maximum terror in the American viewer base who would develop new fears that their hometowns are no longer safe from violence. Surely enough, war breaks out and the people of Kansas shelter, dig, and develop radiation sickness in no time. While it’s full of top-notch drama, there’s a schematic quality about it in the logical play of its horrors being the whole point. So that is to say that, in TV eventMeyer reveals he wanted audiences to see the drama “as a public service announcement.”
TV eventthe 2020 documentary by Jeff Daniels (not this a) on the making of The day afteris a relatively straightforward account of events, as Daniels puts together a somewhat random collection of people who made the movie happen. The day after director Meyer is the star here, positioned as the enfant terrible (freshly released from his 1982 production Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan), who insisted on defying censorship and filming all four hours of the script despite only two making it to the final cut. His diabolical attitude fuels the idea of the original film as a heroic act, something necessary which provoked the passion of its creators despite their difficulties in filming it.
The specter of Ronald Reagan also looms over the film, as then-US President and, by extension, the American public’s avatar for Cold War diplomacy. Reagan functions as a sort of phantom studio boss, with the producers understanding that every blow to the outsized nuclear power of the “bad guys” is also an implicit criticism of the “good” nuclear powers. While censors and restrictive producers are present, the supposed disapproval of the Reagan administration provides much of the conflict.
TV event shares the same task with many other historical documentaries: to show its audience that the now-common tropes were radical in a different context. But the film arguably goes too far in this direction, only highlighting Sisyphus’ struggle to achieve this. of vital importance story on the small screen. Powers that would have made it difficult The day after exist in the first place are also among those who sing his praises in TV event.
The accounts of The day afterThe prominence of mostly comes from the executives and producers of the network, all of whom suggest a certain amount of patting on the back. However, in this regard, the most bizarre inclusion comes from interviews with actress Ellen Anthony, who played young Joleen Dahlberg (Denise’s younger sister) in the film. Although he plays a small role, Anthony is the main actor being interviewed. She recalls, in prosaic detail, her awakening to the horrible power of humanity while making the film as a child actor. Even a key scene focusing on an argument between his character’s parents (John Cullum and Bibi Besch) receives a lot of comments, suggesting that Anthony was one of the few who answered the casting call.
Concentrated as TV event is about the controversies of the production, it also points out, by omission, how common these once-rare tropes have become in mainstream entertainment. Primetime stories have come a long way since then, especially now that we’re several waves away from the golden age of television. (Consider, for a moment, those ABC executives of the 80s discussing something like Hannibal.) So during The day after was unique in many ways, its quaint solemnity is still what remains, making a devious argument for the ever-present threat of death as a good way to actually scare you. And it’s the good work of TV event, also, which reminds us of the former popularity of this fear, and how far we’ve come all along to stare death in the face.