Thursday, 25 February 2016

Disaster Film Olympiad: The Day After

I'm going to Kansas City, as Little Richard put it. Kansas City here I come. It's not just pioneering rock and roll heroes, either. All sorts of things are on their way there, including - in November 1983 - intercontinental ballistic missiles.

It was the early 1980s. The Cold War was at its height and the situation between the great powers of East and West was at its most precarious since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. In an unlikely turn of events, Ronald Reagan was in the White House. In an unlikelier one still, he was in there because he was the President. His Strategic Missile Defence initiative - known by the colloquial name of the Star Wars system - promised the possibility of a winnable nuclear war. It was an escalation in an arms race that had already gotten wildly out of control and tensions rose in tandem. After all, total and instantaneous global destruction was what was at stake.

Both of these ways of thinking were the inspiration for The Day After, the highest rated American made-for-television film of all time. Its name referred to the fact that, rather than the widely assumed cessation of all life on Earth, there would be a day after any nuclear conflict. The film set about essaying how the post-nuclear world may turn out to be with the action centring around a number of families in and around the area of Kansas City, Missouri and the campus of Kansas University at Lawrence, Kansas.

As a confrontation arose between the East and West at the East German border, the inhabitants of this hotbed of military hardware suddenly became aware that large pieces of it were starting to fly away. As one observer grimly notes, this means that the corresponding ones in the Soviet Union would, too, be on their way. As good a time as any to make sure your will is fully up to date. Upon their arrival, many people and places in the major urban areas are instantaneously anhailated, leaving a decimated band of stragglers battling for their own and each other's survival.

Steve Guttenberg as Steve Klein in The Day After (1983). You're not looking well, chief.

The Day After retains the majority of its ability to shock, appal and frighten, even from an historical distance of almost a third of a century. Many of its scenes are burnt into the minds of all who have seen it. For many, not even his sterling work in Police Academy or Three Men and a Baby will have superseded The Day After as Steve Guttenberg's standout role. A powerful legacy by anyone's standards.

That is far from The Day After's only social or cultural impact. Although its great contemporary - the British-made 1984 film Threads - remains the more affecting and chilling film, The Day After is the more outstanding and lasting piece. President Reagan watched the finished product a few days before it was released to the public and noted in his diary that it left him "greatly depressed". He would later cable Nicholas Meyer, the film's director, after the signing of a nuclear arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union telling him that his film's importance to its successful completion should not be overlooked. Threads, a film which has nevertheless chilled the marrow of all that have ever encountered it, cannot boast such wider historical significance.

The most striking thing about The Day After, though, is its bipartisanship. The film caused considerable controversy - both before and after its release - for its refusal to point the finger at the Soviet Union for being the people who fired first. During the production, the US Defense Department refused to provide any stock footage of nuclear explosions or other support after its makers refused to back down from its policy of non-specificity and after the film was seen by the public, The New York Post newspaper decried Meyer as a dastardly red, a fifth columnist who was successfully doing all of the USSR's propaganda work for them. Such ideological wrangles have lessened in the intervening years but, to prove Meyer and his production team's instincts correct, their decision still affords the film a great universality: a sense that nationality or politics cease to matter when it is humanity itself that is at stake.

The Day After is a film of many standout moments; its sense of sadness, frustration and futility remains quite undiminished even thirty years on. It is a film that perhaps doesn't chill or frighten in quite the same way as Threads does, but it comes as close as anyone need dare. The Day After gets a shattering 9 out of 10 Disaster Points.

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