A (nuclear) blast from the past this week. On FX's hit show "The Americans" -- about Russian sleeper spies living in 1980s Washington, DC -- the spies and their kids and neighbors watch The Day After, a 1983 made-for-TV movie about the aftermath of a nuclear war.
Broadcast on Sunday, 20 November 1983, The Day After (YouTube) was a bona fide "television event." (It was even followed by an all-star and all-white-male panel discussion moderated by Ted Koppel on ABC.) The film attracted a record-breaking 100 million viewers, a reaction from President Reagan, and all kinds of press in the months before and after it aired.
Why wouldn't it? Nuclear war was a looming threat. This was the Cold War, as the US and the Soviet Union adopted a posture of "mutually assured destruction" -- neither would dare start a war for it would surely mean the death of both -- and a huge anti-nuclear movement grew up in response. (The year before, as many as a million people took to the streets of Manhattan and Central Park to protest for a "freeze" on building new nuclear weapons.) Books warned of the dire The Fate of the Earth, and scientists predicted that a "nuclear winter" would follow a war.
Terrified at the prospect of a nuclear war, I got involved with my local student anti-nuclear group, STOP Nuclear War. Among the many other outlets covering The Day After was, well, the Brookline High School Sagamore newspaper, for which I interviewed the film's screenwriter, Edward Hume. The interview ran in the Friday, 13 January 1984 issue, when I was a sophomore. Here's a redacted version.
What scene did you try to have the most impact on viewers?
Personally, my favorite scene, and the scene that did seem to have a lot of effect on people, was the scene early in the film when [the character of] Eve Dahlberg, the farmer’s wife, even after the missiles had gone off, persisted in the daily routine of going around the house, and in fact she was making beds. When her husband comes and tries to get her to go down to the basement, she refuses to listen to him, and he finally has to carry her down the stairs screaming. The reason I found it so powerful was that it’s dealing with what I think is really the issue that comes before all others, which is our ability to deny things that are disagreeable, which is our whole reason for doing the film.
How do you feel as if your personal political beliefs affected the film?
Hume: I don’t think they had a lot to do with the film we did. The film is a very straightforward story about these missiles going off for whatever reason and the only politics that might have affected that might be my lack of faith in our current deterrence policy, and that’s not necessarily true either. All the thinkers that are working in the Defense Department, they’re dealing with these prospects all the time, and I don’t think any of them are fool enough to say, “this will never happen.” Politically, I suppose you could say I’m worried enough to want to devote my time to exploring this risk factor and making people aware of it.
What complications worked against getting The Day After on television?
Hume: Nothing. It took a lot of time to get it on the air only because it was a complicated production. A lot of people thought there were going to be political obstructions, but there were none.
What sort of criticism and positive feedback did you get?
Hume: It was criticized for its artistic quality, and there’s a lot to find fault with in the film. A lot of people used artistic faults in the film to avoid dealing with the issues that the film was raising. It was criticized because people were led to believe that it was going to be shocking and, worse, that it was going to tell the what to do about the nuclear issue. For example, this week’s TIME Magazine, the story on reactions to The Day After says, “It answered more questions than it raised.” I found that kind of ironic, because it never meant to answer any questions, it meant to raise questions only. That was the whole point. There are some other criticisms that I think have a lot of validity. One was that nuclear war would be much worse. That’s absolutely true.
If it ever has a good effect, it’s something that’s going to happen over the long term. Say it ever reaches 100 million people. Eighty million hate the film, 15 million like it enough to think about it, and five million let it mobilize them, so they’re going to do something. I would say the film has done its job, no matter how critical people are of it.
You don’t feel as if situating The Day After in Kansas isolates nuclear war so someone in Boston might not be able to relate to it?
If anything like this happened, I don’t think that there’s much question—there certainly isn’t in my mind, having done the research on this project—that nuclear war would not be limited. No one is going to take out one or two cities. If it ever happened, it’s going to be quite extensive. Some people said, “Were any other parts of the country hit or was it just Kansas City?” Certainly we were only dealing with Kansas City, but … we had the President [in the film] say that other parts of the country had been hit.
Is the film going to be shown in other countries?
It’s opening this week in Germany. It’s not being seen on television so the effect will be quite different. We had always intended to do this for television in this country because we wanted to reac ha large audience. I think if it was done theatrically, people wouldn’t go see it. People aren’t going to go out and see the end of the world, they’re not going to buy a ticket to go see it. In Europe it’s going to be shown theatrically. It’s going to be shown in England also.
What research did you do on The Day After?
I spoke to some scientists at the MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and I relied quite heavily on government studies of the effects of nuclear war… there is a lot available for people to use, if they want to. It’s very frightening stuff.
Do you feel as if the film has damaged Reagan’s 1984 campaign?
No. The big issue before the film came on was whether it’s political or not. The idea was simply to bring the nuclear issue to the forefront, dealing with the horrors of the what-if situation. I don’t think that means people are going to rise up against President Reagan. The interesting thing is that his popularity actually went up in the polls the week after the film, and I would attribute that to the fact that people rally around the president in times of crisis. And even though this was not a real crisis, it was perceived to be an issue that people got a little upset about, and the natural thing to do is support the people in power.