“They made you a moron, A potential H bomb. There’s no future, no future, no future for you” – The Sex Pistols
In my childhood - in the late seventies and eighties – premieres for made for television movies were a big event. You would see commercial spots for the newest made for TV movie for months leading up to the big event. I remember quite vividly the kid floating to the window in Salem’s Lot (1979). When The Exorcist premiered on CBS. My cousins showed me that movie when I was five years old. I had nightmares for weeks afterwards. I used to sneak down stairs and turn on one of the movie channels of my youth, First Choice or Super Channel. This is how I saw John Carpenter’s The Thing for the first time. Runaway train was another film I got up well after bedtime to watch.
The most terrifying scene for me personally, premiered on November 20, 1983 on the ABC television network. Ronald Reagan was President. Yuri Andropov was the paramount leader of the Soviet Union and the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or A.I.D.S was a new immune system disorder that was making headlines. Assured mutual destruction and trickle-down economics were buzzwords. Reaganomics was in full effect following massive tax cuts signed into law in 1981. The percentage of people below the poverty line in 1983 had climbed to 15.2%. On March 8th, 1983 President Reagan was speaking to the National Association of Evangelicals where he first said the phrase, “Evil Empire” in reference to the Soviet Union. The doomsday clock was positioned at four minutes to midnight. In November 1983 I was eight years old and living with my grandmother and great-grandmother.
For weeks and weeks we had seen the commercial spots for the latest television movie that was premiering on ABC, The Day After. That November night we gathered around the living room. The ABC Theater logo began. Then a man sitting in front of bookshelves introduced himself, “Hello I’m John Cullum.” And went on to introduce the move. “And this evenings ABC Theater presentation of The Day After I play a father in a typical American family who experienced the catastrophic events of a full-scale nuclear war. Before the movie begins we would like to caution parents about the graphic depiction of nuclear explosions and their devastating effects. The emotional impact of these scenes maybe unusually disturbing and are therefore recommending that very young children not be permitted to watch. In homes where young people are watching we’d like to suggest that the family watch together so the parents can be on hand to answer questions and discuss issues raised by the movie.” Suffice to say my grandmother and great-grandmother did not heed the first part of John Cullum’s warning. The three of us did indeed watch the movie together.
The screen went to black and I had a palpable sense that I was about to see something quite incredible and terrifying. The movie on television began with the following words on the screen: “Although based on scientific fact, this film is fiction. Because the graphic depiction of the effects of a nuclear war may not be suitable for young viewers, parental discretion is advised.”
As a kid I loved, loved airplanes. I had notebooks filled with drawings of them. My father would take me an airshow every summer. I knew all the designations of military aircraft. The Day After opens on a Boeing 707 with gray, white and black lettering of the United States air force sitting on the tarmac at SAC Airborne Command Post Omaha, Nebraska. A general boards the plane. Service people are working. This opening scene feels very much like a documentary. The plane roars to life and takes off over cornfields. Big brassy music swells as the camera flies over farms and small mid-west towns. School is staring. Cowboys ride through cattle pens. People are working in manufacturing jobs. The camera flies over Royals Ballpark where George Brett, Vida Blue, Gaylord Perry played months before. It is a beautiful day in Kansas.
The ticker tape is humming, the phones are ringing and the numbers are changing on the stock boards at the Kansas Board of Trade. The television news plays as journalists are talking about Soviet Union military buildup along the border of Czechoslovakia. A military helicopter lands at a quaint little house. Military personal run off of the helicopter. They enter a missile silo. “Everything is clean and green.” An air force person informs the others.
Dr. Russell Oakes (Jason Robards) is meeting with his daughter Marilyn (Kyle Aletter) “Hey what’s eating you fruitcake.” he remarks. “I’m sorry just jumpy.” “Ah, you saw 60 minutes last night.” “Huh? No. Come on, I’m taking you to someplace you work right next to and I bet you’ve never been inside in fifteen years.” Sirens are off in the distance. They then wander an art museum. “Sometimes it’s hard to experience a Chinese landscape because the artist does not tell you where you are watching from.” Marilyn informs her dad as they look upon a painting. “You know why?” She asks. Dr. Russell shakes his head, no. “Because he wants you to be in the landscape. A part of it not out here looking at it.” “You mean a God’s eye point of view?” “No, well yes, if by God you mean everywhere inside sort of thing.” Marilyn informs her dad that she is moving to Boston. “Growing up is like growing apart, maybe it’s a natural phenomenon.” Marilyn says. Seconds of silence. Dr. Russell speaks, “It’s not so easy, saying goodbye.”
As families gather for dinner the evening news plays on the radio and television. The Soviet Union is moving large military forces. People pause as an anchorperson relates that East Germany has closed off access to West Berlin. As the sun sets in Kansas, the threat of war is imminent. A baseball game plays. “We interrupt this program to bring you a special report…” East Germany is making more aggressive moves. Life continues. Two sisters chase each other around the house fighting. “Jolene, I’m never going to speak to you again.” An air force man is getting ready to be deployed to his missile silo has an emotional goodbye with his wife. “It’s just an alert, we run around and check things twice instead of once, that’s it.” Life continues as the prospect of war looms larger. There is such a dread the runs throughout The Day After which directly tapped into the zeitgeist of the early 1980s. At any moment actual nuclear was possible and probable. For a country that has in been in continuous declared war for most of the twenty-first century, it is perhaps difficult to grasp how real nuclear war and all out destruction of the planet was. This threat has never actually dissipated.
The sun rises the next day and people continue to go about their day. Tensions continue to escalate in East Germany. A high school football practice is happening. War in Germany is starting. People are leaving Kansas because of the missile silos. The city of Moscow is being evacuated. A man gets a haircut before his wedding the next day. The Russians have invaded West Germany. The highways of Kansas and Missouri are packed with cars leaving the area. Panic. Supermarkets are getting cleaned out. Children watch morning cartoons. The high-pitched tone of an emergency broadcast interrupts the show. Three nuclear blasts are being reported over advancing Soviet troops. Air force troops scramble to B-52 bombers. Another nuclear bomb has exploded at regional NATO headquarters.
Forty-nine minutes and twenty-seven seconds into The Day After a woman is drying off after a shower. Her kids are playing outside. The farmhouse begins to shake. In the window behind her a huge plume of light and smoke emerges from the ground. She rushes to the window. A horse neighs and bolts in slow motion. The kids stare in awe of the missile emerging from the silo. The nuclear missile is airborne. The unthinkable is happening. When Jim Dahlberg (Jim Cullen) carries his wife Eve (Bibi Besch) downstairs to the cellar and Eve is screaming it is bone chilling.
We see the Kansas City skyline. The wailing of warning seconds give way to silence. The shot pulls back. The sound of a large boom followed by a brilliant flash of light. Electricity goes out, rooms immediately darken. Clocks stop. Cars stop. A fireball explosion begins on the horizon. The television screen goes white. Only the silhouettes of cars on the highway are visible. The explosion starts to rise from the ground, rising upwards, forming a mushroom cloud. Vast destruction. More explosions. Mushroom clouds. The screen flashes.
In an entire film filled with the horror of nuclear war, it is a forty second sequence that really got to eight year and now forty-six year old me. It begins with a woman flashing into a skeleton and then ceasing to exist. An entire classroom of children flashes into skeletons and cease to exist. Within flashes of red, white and blue one hundred and seventy life forms flash into skeletons and are instantly evaporated. Among the evaporated, fifty children, six cattle, the horse from the first missile launch and one dog. The most violent fictional forty seconds ever aired on American television. I had nightmares for weeks.
As a Generation X child, it felt like the world could end at any moment. The psychological effect of these catastrophic images at such a young age were deeply embedded in my imagination. I often think of my worldview of the future being such an abstract thought and how I often live within the moment. To both a benefit and a detriment. I hadn’t had nightmares of nuclear war for many years until the 45th President was elected. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues it still feels as though there is no future for you. Scientists developed the doomsday clock in 1947 to convey the threats to humanity and the planet. The doomsday clock is set every year. As of January 27, 2021 the Doomsday clock is set at 100 seconds to Midnight. The closet to extinction the clock has ever been set.