“TV movie” and “nuclear annihilation” aren’t readily linked concepts, and they certainly weren’t back in the movie-of-the-week heyday of 1983, when ABC took a gamble on the decidedly downbeat The Day After. The Kansas-set drama, an unflinching depiction of the aftermath of an atomic conflagration, aired Nov. 20 of that year, after months of promotion and controversy, not to mention last-minute warnings from the American Psychiatric Association. It was a disaster pic distinguished by its aim to discomfort rather than entertain, and its broadcast debut was viewed by an estimated 100 million Americans.
The communal experience (fittingly memorialized in an episode of The Americans) was more than a ratings coup, as Jeff Daniels’ witty, moving and engaging Television Event makes vibrantly clear. Through interviews with key figures behind the telefilm, the doc is a dynamic oral history of its making, capturing the clash of creative and commercial interests around a daring project. On a broader scale, it taps into the heightened anxiety over U.S.-Soviet tensions, the growing nuclear stockpiles that went with them, and the response of the Reagan administration to the movie’s anti-nukes message.
When ABC came knocking, Nicholas (Nick) Meyer was a big-screen director with two titles to his name (Time After Time, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) and a screenwriting Oscar nomination (for The Seven-Per-Cent Solution). TV was not the prestige medium it is today, and three helmers had turned down the network before Meyer said yes to the Edward Hume-scripted “special event,” seeing “a chance to put my work in the service of my beliefs.” Those beliefs were, like Hume’s, sympathetic to the era’s robust disarmament movement. Their aim for the movie was to transcend the Cold War view of international politics as American good versus the Soviets’ “evil empire” — to cast the deadly arsenal itself as the villain.
No fan of Reagan’s “peace through strength” policies that suggested nuclear war is survivable, Meyer entertained hopes that his PSA-as-arty-narrative would play a role in unseating the president. On that front he didn’t succeed, but the movie certainly made an impression on the commander-in-chief. After a pre-broadcast screening that left him “deeply depressed,” his administration asked ABC for cuts and, when that didn’t work, launched a pre-emptive propaganda campaign. The doc suggests too that The Day After played a role in the eventual softening of Reagan’s anti-détente stance. If it shook him as profoundly as it did millions of viewers, there’s no reason to doubt this.
When Brandon Stoddard, president of ABC motion pictures at the time, proposed the nuclear-Armageddon “what if” premise, he was met with disbelief. A well-chosen clip shows why: the network’s promo for its 1980 fall season, a Broadway-style song-and-dance number featuring such series stars as Hal Linden, Joyce DeWitt, Robert Guillaume and Penny Marshall puttin’ on the ritz. And yet, somehow, the doomsday project moved forward, with vp Stu Samuels lining up the creative team and often at odds with them as he prioritized ratings over saving the world.
Producer Bob Papazian and Stephanie Austin, the associate producer who handled a good deal of the research, also weigh in, along with scripter Hume and assistant editor Walton Dornisch. The sharp editing of Eileen Meyer and Aaron Wickenden gives their commentary a lively back-and-forth zing. Daniels strikes a smart balance between behind-the-scenes showbiz saga and heavy issues. (Ken Adelman, director of the now-defunct Arms Control and Disarmament Agency during Reagan’s presidency, also appears.)
There isn’t a bland interview in the film, with Meyer (most recently co-creator of the Netflix series Medici) providing a particularly incisive mix of brio and emotion. The business of network notes and Standards & Practices was new to him, and one that he never eased into. Images of blood, burns and vaporization were verboten, but Meyer shot them anyway. The culture clash ran comical and deep: On a production that screened Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour for the crew, execs responded to early dailies by saying, “We need it brighter.” The tug-of-war grew more heated, the helmer finally resorting to brinksmanship after the film was taken away from him.
Only one of the movie’s actors — who include Steve Guttenberg, JoBeth Williams, John Cullum, John Lithgow and Amy Madigan — is interviewed in Television Event: Ellen Moore (née Anthony), who played the tween character Joleen. One of the many Lawrence, Kansas, locals in the film, she looks back on the experience with a keen appreciation of its impact on her, as does David Longhurst, the city’s mayor at the time. In that pre-CGI era, many scenes of devastation in the American heartland played out in physical reality, in the Kansans’ midst. A sequence depicting supermarket panic — one of several excerpts Daniels uses to strong effect — is superbly staged and filmed, and sure to strike a chord with COVID-era viewers.
The Day After arrived upon waves of controversy, mental-health-watch warnings and red-baiting. Stoddard, whose commitment to the project apparently never wavered, received death threats. Having given up on ad dollars, the network was committed to creating an “event.” Most advertisers were skittish; Orville Redenbacher took the leap and scored quite a deal when two-thirds of the national audience tuned in.
Anticipating that this record-setting audience would need its nerves soothed, ABC aired a live post-show discussion hosted by Ted Koppel with a panel of heavy hitters, among them Elie Wiesel, Carl Sagan and Robert McNamara. In 1983, most Americans expected a nuclear war to take place within the next 10 years. Daniels’ sharp film never loses sight of that sense of urgency. As the movie’s biggest name, Jason Robards, told Meyer when he agreed to star in a film about the losing end of the arms race, “Beats signing petitions.”
Venue: DOC NYC (Behind the Scenes)
Production companies: Impact Partners, Screen Australia, Common Room Productions
Director: Jeff Daniels
Producers: Jeff Daniels, Amanda Spain, Ozzy Inguanzo
Executive producers: Jenny Raskin, Dan Cogan, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Nion McEvoy, Leslie Berriman, Katrina vanden Heuvel
Director of photography: Nick Higgins
Editors: Eileen Meyer, Aaron Wickenden
Composer: T. Griffin