When Nuclear War is No Longer Unthinkable: Honoring Two Television Events

By Charlotte Dennett, CounterPunch, January 23, 2024

“There’s something about the sound of a mothers scream, you just never forget.” That was a comment from actress Ellen Moore when interviewed about her role in a recently released documentary about the 1982 movie The Day After, a spellbinder that had over a hundred million Americans glued to their TV sets, watching how a nuclear bomb devastated a rural community in Lawrence, Kansas.

And that’s how director Jeff Daniels opens his new documentary, modestly titled Television Event. The camera pans in on a quiet suburban neighborhood, then suddenly we hear the soul-chilling screams of a distraught mother, who, in The Day After, is forced into the family cellar by her husband while resisting the notion that lives are at risk, that guests may not be coming and her daughter may not get married the next day.

Next comes a giant ear-shattering explosion as a Minuteman nuclear missile blasts off next to her back yard, headed for Russia.

Some real-time 1983 news footage follows of Americans nervously sitting around their TV, hands clenched, eyes glued to the unfolding horror in The Day After as whole neighborhoods are reduced to rubble.

Enter Nicholas Meyer, the director of The Day After, interviewed by Daniels in his California home about the making of this TV event. “In case you didn’t see it,” Meyer puts it bluntly, “ it’s about a bunch of people in the Midwest going about their daily business and then they get nuked” Nuclear war, he warns, is “the most devastating possibility ever confronting the human race — short of climate change –and yet so terrifying that no one can bear to think about it.”

Director Nicholas Meyer (in red shirt) with local actors on the set of The Day After

I interviewed both filmmakers, and was impressed by their sense of mission, their dedication to informing people — 40 years apart — that nuclear war is an existential threat to be taken very seriously. These interviews occurred while the US is involved in arming two major wars, one in Ukraine, the other in Israel-Gaza. Meyer told me he believes we are already involved in World War III. A discomforting thought, to be sure. But he’s used to tackling discomforting thoughts.

Back in 1982, after being chosen director of The Day After by Brandon Stoddard, head of ABC’s Circle Films, Movie of the Week division, Meyer’s challenge was this: how was he going to get regular people to watch such a mind-bending spectacle as nuclear annihilation in one sitting? Not exactly a promising career change, he figured, for a director of feature films (most famously Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). As he sat on his analyst’s coach trying to rationalize his way out of making the film, his normally silent shrink weighed in with a crack that left him no wiggle room. “Well, we will find out who you are.” Meyer found out, and the movie would end up making history and changing the course of the Cold War. And it did so by focusing on the altered lives of ordinary people hailing from the Midwest.

“You’re treading on an aesthetic, intellectual and emotional minefield,” Meyer told me, when describing his thinking 40 years ago about how to present such a delicate subject. “You have to go slow. You have to start from the premise that people will do anything to not think about the topic.” At the same time, “it could not be so terrible that people would reach for the clicker and turn it off.” He was determined to be dry-eyed, and not political, in presenting the nuclear menace.

As it turned out, The Day After to this day remains the most watched television film in US history and had an enormous impact on public opinion. “No one had ever seen anything like it,” he says.

A new book has come out on the book’s impact by David Craig, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, titled Apocalypse Television: How the Day After Helped End the Cold War.” Sadly, 40 years later, the Cold War has now been rekindled, making both films highly relevant and worth watching.

The Day After wades into its theme very carefully, involving the viewer in the lives of a farming community in Lawrence Kansas before delivering its message, one hour into the film, of nuclear war with Russia becoming a reality.

Television Event, on the other hand, begins with a bang, with both Daniels and Meyer determined to send a wakeup call to a somnolent viewership about the imminent dangers of nuclear war. The documentary achieves this handily, while also educating viewers on what it took to produce The Day After, from researching archival footage of America in the early 1980s at the National Archives and creating the visual effect of a mushroom cloud (kudos to Associate Producer Stephanie Austin) to being true to The Day After’s setting (Lawrence’s rural landscape is host to hundreds of underground missile sites) and honoring the people who starred in the original film (from Jason Robards to everyday people from Lawrence.)

Its footage chronicling the 1983 premier of The Day After and its aftermath is remarkable.

Television Event shows Nancy and Ronald Reagan watching a requested advance copy of The Day After at Camp David, ahead of its screening. Reagan wrote in his memoirs that he found it very depressing. He began to worry about its impact on the American people…and possibly on himself. The White House asked for edits, but ABC producer Brandon Stoddard refused.

Scene from The Day After. ABC.

The film became hugely controversial even before it aired. The New York Post ran an editorial titled, “”Why is Nicholas Meyer doing Yuri Andropov’s Work For Him?” Producer Stoddard got threats on his life. All the other networks were asking why ABC wanted to scare the hell out of people. Advertisers wouldn’t touch it — with a notable exception of Orville Redenbacher of popcorn fame, who put down $11,000 and ecstatically saw his popcorn being viewed by 100 million people.

Directly following the telecast of the movie, ABC hosted a panel discussion on Viewpoint, led by Ted Koppel and featuring such luminaries as Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, William Buckley Jr, Carl Sagan and Elie Wiesel. Remarkably, former Defense Secretary (1961–68) Robert McNamara came to its defense. “It’s stimulating discussion on exactly what we should be discussing,” he said. “There’s a million times the Hiroshima destruction power out there. We must make sure it isn’t used.” And Ronald Reagan, famous for previously arguing “peace through strength” and railing against the Soviet Union as the “evil empire,” came to a similar conclusion, declaring in a speech that “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be used.” He ended up meeting with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 and signing the Intermediate Range Nuclear Weapons Treaty, in what was the largest reduction of nuclear weapons in history.

Last month, both directors converged on Lawrence for the first screening of Television Event (It will screen on PBS in April) Most of the actors and actresses in The Day After were local people who were deeply affected by the experience. Now, on the film’s 40th anniversary, they had come together to honor the artists who produced both films. to recall what the film meant to them, and to reflect on the times we are living in today.

Director Jeff Daniels (second from left) flanked by Arthur Kanegas and Melanie Bennett who initiated and helped organize the 40th anniversary reunion of The Day After at Lawrence, Kansas.

For this reviewer (and chronicler of endless, post-911 wars, including the Israel-Gaza war ), the film’s scenes of demolished homes and neighborhoods triggered day-old images of Gaza under siege as Israeli war planes dropped highly destructive bombs weighing 2,000 pounds (provided by the US) on buildings housing civilians reportedly forced into being human shields for Hamas. By November, 2023, a European human rights group declared that Israel “had dropped more than 25,000 tonnes of explosives on the besieged Gaza Strip since the start of its large-scale bombardment on 7 October, equivalent to two nuclear bombs.”

Destruction of Gaza. Credit: Fadel Sena AFP vis Getty Images

I couldn’t help thinking that the whole world was, in fact, now watching genocide live on TV — no television event needed in 2023 — with the threat of escalation into nuclear war a hauntingly realistic prospect. Various media commentators kept bringing up what the end result would be — “the day after.” As with the psychic numbness that Dr. Helen Caldicott famously referred to regarding popular aversion to thinking about nuclear war, so with the Israel-Gaza war it seemed no one wanted to think about, let alone discuss, the unthinkable possibility of nuclear war in the Holy Land. For Jews, contemplating the brutality of Hamas’s October 7 attacks, followed by Netanyahu’s vengeful genocidal attacks against Palestinians, has been wrenching enough. Yet we have witnessed American destroyers moving into the Eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea, drone attacks by Iranian-supported Houthis launched from Yemen against Red Sea ships, Israeli bombings of Iranians in Syria and Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon, and now U.S. retaliation against the Houthis, with emotions hardened on all sides. The horrific events of October 7 have understandably triggered memories of the Holocaust, while others (most notably in the Muslim world) compared Israel’s bombing of Gaza to Hiroshima.

Nick Meyer recalls downtown Lawrence evoking images of Hiroshima.

Actor Jason Robards amidst the rubble in The Day After. Getty images. ABC.

A Japanese woman told him, “That’s how it was.” Some of the cast, he told me, had “nuke-mares.”

Red Cross Hospital amidst wreckage in Hiroshima. Photo: Photo: Red Cross Red Crescent

It’s as if some unexpected forces of destiny have converged on planet earth to remind us humans how close were are to causing our own annihilation. And, appropriately (if not eerily) enough, The Day After has people expressing fears of war in the Middle East. “If we’re talking about oil in Saudi Arabia, I’d be real worried,” says a student watching TV as news breaks of growing tensions with the Russians. An hour later, this becomes a reality. “The Russians just hit one of our ships in the Persian Gulf,” says a grocery shopper hoarding food. “And we hit them back!” In Television Event, we see a woman asking Ted Koppel’s famous panelists if war in the Middle East is a possibility.

In The Day After, we see a whole series of Minuteman missiles taking off from underground silos in Kansas on their way to Russia, triggering fears on one missile base that “we are sitting ducks,” and comments from a Kansan who happens to live next to a missile base that in his state, “there’s a lot of bulls eyes.”

Meyer suggested to me that a first step to banishing nuclear war would be to “get rid of all those land-based missiles.” In Television Event, he comments that “We have enough nukes to kill everyone 54 times over,” and to me, “There are a lot of nuclear weapons around the world and a lot of people with their fingers on the buttons. Pakistan, India, Russia, Israel, the US and for all we know, others that are not under government control.”

How and Why Television Event happened

Three years ago, Meyer got a call from Jeff Daniels about doing an interview about the making of The Day After. They ended up spending a day together. Two years later Meyer got a phone call from Daniels. “You’re a star in the film.”

Daniels was five years old when he watched The Day After with his family. As with so many others who viewed the film, it left a lasting impression. “They put me to bed before the iconic bomb sequence. But the idea that you could die a horrible death by someone pressing a button horrified me.”

As an adult, he read Meyer’ book, The View from the Bridge, that “describes the making of the Day After so well.”

The more the two directors talked, the more they realized they had a shared mission. “We spoke for hours,” Daniels explained. “It’s a midlife story, a David v Goliath story, it’s about a bunch of people who become accidental heroes in some ways. In the end, the true heroes are the people of Lawrence Kansas.”

When I interviewed Daniels, he had recently returned from a UN meeting in New York sponsored by ICAN (The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) ICAN is a coalition of non-governmental organizations aimed at “stigmatizing, prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons” while promoting adherence to the United Nations nuclear weapon ban treaty, adopted in 2017.So far, 69 countries have signed on. Its website is worth checking out for the amazing amount of activity going on now to educate the public about the dangers of nuclear war.

“It was great to see how ICAN had created opportunities for artists to show our work,” Daniels explained, “and to connect with others, all of us seeking ways to achieve results from a complicated topic by creating something that elicits an emotion, a personal connection to this subject so people can connect and act. That’s what artists do. There was a great deal of interest from all over the world.”

Would Television Event create the same sensation as The Day After? Clearly, this was the two directors’ hope. “At a time when the world seems to be sleepwalking toward nuclear disaster,” says Meyer, “a new documentary aims to shake us into recognizing the danger –just as The Day After did 40 years ago.” Daniels recalls having to overcome similar challenges confronting Meyer: “Anything that requires a second, third or forth layer of understanding is too much for people, especially about their impending doom,” Daniels told me. His goal was, like Meyer’ four decades ago, to “create a conversation where people could forget their differences and come together and talk about issues that are more urgent.”

The Day After would be shown in 35 countries in 17 languages. It became the first American film to be shown in Russia, and again, the response was positive with a message to Russian viewers: “It is the hoped that the events shown in this film will inspire people to find a way to avoid this day.”

Clearly, as the world holds it breath once again for fear that the Israel-Gaza war — or the war in Ukraine — will escalate into a world war among nuclear powers, the timing of Television Event could not be more…eventful. It is a masterful work of historical reflection while courageously bringing forth, once again, the pressing danger of nuclear annihilation. If you care to watch it before its release in April, you can see the full version here for a nominal fee of $5.00. Television Event is a must-see, worthy of holding discussions with your neighbors, schoolmates, colleagues, families and friends, as is, of course The Day After, easily available on Youtube.

Watch both films…and be blown away.

Originally published: https://www.counterpunch.org/2024/01/23/when-nuclear-war-is-no-longer-unthinkable-honoring-two-television-events/.

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