|The Day After|
|Written by||Edward Hume|
|Directed by||Nicholas Meyer|
|Theme music composer||David Raksin|
Virgil Thomson (Theme for "The River")
|Country of origin||United States|
|Producers||Robert Papazian (producer)|
Stephanie Austin (associate producer)
|Editors||William Paul Dornisch|
|Running time||126 minutes|
|Production company||ABC Circle Films|
|Distributor||ABC Motion Pictures|
Disney–ABC Domestic Television
|Picture format||Color (CFI)|
The Day After is an American post-apocalyptic television film that first aired on November 20, 1983, on the ABC television network. More than 100 million people, in nearly 39 million households, watched the program during its initial broadcast. With a 46 rating and a 62% share of the viewing audience during its initial broadcast, it was the seventh-highest-rated non-sports show up to that time and set a record as the highest-rated television film in history—a record it held as of 2009.
The film postulates a fictional war between NATO forces and the Warsaw Pact countries over Germany that rapidly escalates into a full-scale nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. The action itself focuses on the residents of Lawrence, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri, and of several family farms near nuclear missile silos.
The cast includes JoBeth Williams, Steve Guttenberg, John Cullum, Jason Robards, and John Lithgow. The film was written by Edward Hume, produced by Robert Papazian, and directed by Nicholas Meyer. It was released on DVD on May 18, 2004, by MGM.
The film was broadcast on the Soviet Union's state TV in 1987, in the period of the negotiations on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The producers demanded that the Russian translation conform to the original script and that the broadcast would not be interrupted by commentary.
The film is centered around several characters and their families, all located in the Kansas City area. These include the Dahlberg family, who lives on their farm in Harrisonville, Missouri, 40 miles (64 km) from Kansas City. The Dahlbergs' eldest daughter Denise (Lori Lethin) is set to be married in two days to a student at the University of Kansas, and near the start of the film they perform their wedding dress rehearsal. Dr. Russell Oakes (Jason Robards), is a doctor in Kansas City, Missouri who also teaches classes at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. Stephen Klein (Steve Guttenberg) is a University of Kansas pre-med student. Airman First Class Billy McCoy (William Allen Young) lives at Whiteman Air Force Base near Sedalia, Missouri and mans a Minuteman launch site in Sweetsage, Missouri, 20 miles (32 km) from Kansas City. Another family, the Hendrys, lives on a farm adjoining McCoy's launch site.
The first portion of the film focuses on the characters' everyday lives as they react to news reports of a rapidly escalating conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States, with the latter portion of the film showing their experience dealing with the aftermath of the war. At the start of the film, reports depict Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact forces building on the border between East Germany and West Germany. West Berlin is blockaded, and a NATO attempt to break the blockade via the Helmstedt-Marienborn border results in heavy casualties. The next day, the military conflict in Europe rapidly escalates, with Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces launching a full scale invasion of West Germany. When Soviet forces reach the Rhine, NATO uses tactical nuclear weapons to prevent a possible invasion of France. Shortly after, each side attacks naval targets in the Persian Gulf. A nuclear attack also destroys NATO Headquarters. By this point, most characters have begun to prepare for potential nuclear war, with Stephen Klein hitching a ride home to Joplin.
As the threat of large-scale nuclear attack grows, hoarding begins, and so does evacuation of major cities in both the Soviet Union and United States. Frequent Emergency Broadcast System warnings are sent over television and radio, and Kansas City begins to empty, clogging outbound freeways. Dr. Oakes is among the many stuck in the traffic jam as he drives toward Lawrence, but, after hearing an EBS alert and realizing the danger to Kansas City and his family living there, decides to turn around and head home.
Soviet strikes destroy missile detection centers at Beale Air Force Base and RAF Fylingdales. Minutes apart, the United States launches its Minuteman missiles, and United States military personnel aboard the EC-135 Looking Glass aircraft track inbound Soviet nuclear missiles. The film deliberately leaves unclear who fired theirs first. McCoy flees the site he was stationed at now that its Minuteman missile has been launched, intending to locate his wife and child. As air raid sirens go off, widespread panic grips Kansas City as most people frantically seek fallout shelters and other protection from the imminent Soviet nuclear attack.
A high-altitude nuclear explosion occurs over the central United States, generating an electromagnetic pulse which disables vehicles and destroys the electrical grid. Shortly thereafter, high-yield nuclear weapons detonate over numerous locations, including downtown Kansas City, Sedalia, and Sweetsage. The Hendry family, having initially ignored the crisis, is killed when they try to flee. McCoy takes refuge in a truck trailer, and Klein, who had hitchhiked as far as Harrisonville, finds the Dahlberg home and begs for protection in the family's basement. In the meantime, young Danny Dahlberg is flash blinded upon looking at a nearby nuclear detonation. Dr. Oakes, who witnessed the nuclear explosion over Kansas City, walks to the hospital in Lawrence and begins treating patients.
Nuclear fallout and its deadly effects are felt everywhere in the region. McCoy and Oakes, both outside immediately after the explosions, have been exposed without their knowledge to lethal doses of radiation. Denise Dahlberg, frantic after days in the family's basement shelter, runs outside, and Klein, who vows to her father that he'll bring her back, does so, but not before both have been exposed to very high doses of radiation. McCoy learns in his travels that Sedalia and many other cities have been obliterated. Food and water are in very short supply, and looting and other criminal activity leads to the imposition of martial law. Klein takes Denise and Danny to the hospital in Lawrence for treatment. McCoy also travels there, where he dies of radiation poisoning. Denise and Danny and Klein finally leave for Harrisonville and the Dahlberg farm when it becomes clear to them that they cannot be treated medically for their injuries; it is implied that Denise and Klein's conditions are terminal and they will die soon. The President addresses the nation via radio, announcing that a ceasefire has been reached with the Soviet Union (which sustained similar devastating attacks), and that relief efforts are underway, though few listening seem to care.
Jim Dahlberg, returning home from a municipal meeting about agricultural techniques that may work to grow food in the new circumstances, finds squatters on the farm. He explains that it is his land, and asks them to leave, at which point one of the squatters shoots and kills him without any sign of remorse.
Dr. Oakes, at last aware that he has sustained lethal exposure to radiation, returns to Kansas City on foot to see the site of his home before he dies. He finds squatters there, attempts to drive them off, and is instead offered food. Oakes collapses, weeps, and one of the squatters comforts him.
The film ends as Lawrence science faculty head Joe Huxley repeatedly tries to contact other survivors with a shortwave radio. There is no response.
The Day After was the idea of ABC Motion Picture Division president Brandon Stoddard, who, after watching The China Syndrome, was so impressed that he envisioned creating a film exploring the effects of nuclear war on the United States. Stoddard asked his executive vice president of television movies and miniseries Stu Samuels to develop a script. Samuels created the title The Day After to emphasize that the story was not about a nuclear war itself, but the aftermath. Samuels suggested several writers and eventually Stoddard commissioned veteran television writer Edward Hume to write the script in 1981. ABC, which financed the production, was concerned about the graphic nature of the film and how to appropriately portray the subject on a family-oriented television channel. Hume undertook a massive amount of research on nuclear war and went through several drafts until finally ABC deemed the plot and characters acceptable.
Originally, the film was based more around and in Kansas City, Missouri. Kansas City was not bombed in the original script, although Whiteman Air Force Base was, making Kansas City suffer shock waves and the horde of survivors staggering into town. There was no Lawrence, Kansas in the story, although there was a small Kansas town called "Hampton". While Hume was writing the script, he and producer Robert Papazian, who had great experience in on-location shooting, took several trips to Kansas City to scout locations and met with officials from the Kansas film commission and from the Kansas tourist offices to search for a suitable location for "Hampton." It came down to a choice of either Warrensburg, Missouri, and Lawrence, Kansas, both college towns—Warrensburg was home of Central Missouri State University and was near Whiteman Air Force Base and Lawrence was home of the University of Kansas and was near Kansas City. Hume and Papazian ended up selecting Lawrence, due to the access to a number of good locations: a university, a hospital, football and basketball venues, farms, and a flat countryside. Lawrence was also agreed upon as being the "geographic center" of the United States. The Lawrence people were urging ABC to change the name "Hampton" to "Lawrence" in the script.
Back in Los Angeles, the idea of making a TV movie showing the true effects of nuclear war on average American citizens was still stirring up controversy. ABC, Hume, and Papazian realized that for the scene depicting the nuclear blast, they would have to use state-of-the-art special effects and they took the first step by hiring some of the best special effects people in the business to draw up some storyboards for the complicated blast scene. Then, ABC hired Robert Butler to direct the project. For several months, this group worked on drawing up storyboards and revising the script again and again; then, in early 1982, Butler was forced to leave The Day After because of other contractual commitments. ABC then offered the project to two other directors, who both turned it down. Finally, in May, ABC hired feature film director Nicholas Meyer, who had just completed the blockbuster Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Meyer was apprehensive at first and doubted ABC would get away with making a television film on nuclear war without the censors diminishing its effect. However, after reading the script, Meyer agreed to direct The Day After.
Meyer wanted to make sure he would film the script he was offered. He did not want the censors to censor the film, nor the film to be a regular Hollywood disaster movie from the start. Meyer figured the more The Day After resembled such a film, the less effective it would be, and preferred to present the facts of nuclear war to viewers. He made it clear to ABC that no big TV or film stars should be in The Day After. ABC agreed, although they wanted to have one star to help attract European audiences to the film when it would be shown theatrically there. Later, while flying to visit his parents in New York City, Meyer happened to be on the same plane with Jason Robards and asked him to join the cast.
Meyer plunged into several months of nuclear research, which made him quite pessimistic about the future, to the point of becoming ill each evening when he came home from work. Meyer and Papazian also made trips to the ABC censors, and to the United States Department of Defense during their research phase, and experienced conflicts with both. Meyer had many heated arguments over elements in the script that the network censors wanted cut out of the film. The Department of Defense said they would cooperate with ABC if the script made clear that the Soviet Union launched their missiles first—something Meyer and Papazian took pains not to do.
Meyer, Papazian, Hume, and several casting directors spent most of July 1982 taking numerous trips to Kansas City. In between casting in Los Angeles, where they relied mostly on unknowns, they would fly to the Kansas City area to interview local actors and scenery. They were hoping to find some real Midwesterners for smaller roles. Hollywood casting directors strolled through shopping malls in Kansas City, looking for local people to fill small and supporting roles, while the daily newspaper in Lawrence ran an advertisement calling for local residents of all ages to sign up for jobs as a large number of extras in the film and a professor of theater and film at the University of Kansas was hired to head up the local casting of the movie. Out of the eighty or so speaking parts, only fifteen were cast in Los Angeles. The remaining roles were filled in Kansas City and Lawrence.
While in Kansas City, Meyer and Papazian toured the Federal Emergency Management Agency offices in Kansas City. When asked what their plans for surviving nuclear war were, a FEMA official replied that they were experimenting with putting evacuation instructions in telephone books in New England. "In about six years, everyone should have them." This meeting led Meyer to later refer to FEMA as "a complete joke." It was during this time that the decision was made to change "Hampton" in the script to "Lawrence." Meyer and Hume figured since Lawrence was a real town, that it would be more believable and besides, Lawrence was a perfect choice to play a representative of Middle America. The town boasted a "socio-cultural mix," sat near the exact geographic center of the continental U.S., and Hume and Meyer's research told them that Lawrence was a prime missile target, because 150 Minuteman missile silos stood nearby. Lawrence had some great locations, and the people there were more supportive of the project. Suddenly, less emphasis was put on Kansas City, the decision was made to have the city completely annihilated in the script, and Lawrence was made the primary location in the film.
ABC originally planned to air The Day After as a four-hour "television event", spread over two nights with total running time of 180 minutes without commercials. Director Nicholas Meyer felt the original script was padded, and suggested cutting out an hour of material to present the whole film in one night. The network stuck with their two night broadcast plan, and Meyer filmed the entire three-hour script, as evidenced by a 172-minute work-print that has surfaced. Subsequently, the network found that it was difficult to find advertisers, considering the subject matter. ABC relented, and told Meyer he could edit the film for a one-night broadcast version. Meyer's original single-night cut ran two hours and twenty minutes, which he presented to the network. After this screening, many executives were deeply moved and some even cried, leading Meyer to believe they approved of his cut.
Nevertheless, a further six-month struggle ensued over the final shape of the film. Network censors had opinions about the inclusion of specific scenes, and ABC itself, eventually intent on "trimming the film to the bone", made demands to cut out many scenes Meyer strongly lobbied to keep. Finally Meyer and his editor Bill Dornisch balked. Dornisch was fired, and Meyer walked away from the project. ABC brought in other editors, but the network ultimately was not happy with the results they produced. They finally brought Meyer back and reached a compromise, with Meyer paring down The Day After to a final running time of 120 minutes.
The Day After was initially scheduled to premiere on ABC in May 1983, but the post-production work to reduce the film's length pushed back its initial airdate to November. Censors forced ABC to cut an entire scene of a child having a nightmare about nuclear holocaust and then sitting up, screaming. A psychiatrist told ABC that this would disturb children. "This strikes me as ludicrous," Meyer wrote in TV Guide at the time, "not only in relation to the rest of the film, but also when contrasted with the huge doses of violence to be found on any average evening of TV viewing." In any case, they made a few more cuts, including to a scene where Denise possesses a diaphragm. Another scene, where a hospital patient abruptly sits up screaming, was excised from the original television broadcast but restored for home video releases. Meyer persuaded ABC to dedicate the film to the citizens of Lawrence, and also to put a disclaimer at the end of the film, following the credits, letting the viewer know that The Day After downplayed the true effects of nuclear war so they would be able to have a story. The disclaimer also included a list of books that provide more information on the subject.
The Day After received a large promotional campaign prior to its broadcast. Commercials aired several months in advance, ABC distributed half a million "viewer's guides" that discussed the dangers of nuclear war and prepared the viewer for the graphic scenes of mushroom clouds and radiation burn victims. Discussion groups were also formed nationwide.
Composer David Raksin wrote original music and adapted music from The River (a documentary film score by concert composer Virgil Thomson), featuring an adaptation of the hymn "How Firm a Foundation". Although he recorded just under 30 minutes of music, much of it was edited out of the final cut. Music from the First Strike footage, conversely, was not edited out.
Due to the film's being shortened from the original three hours (running time) to two, several planned special-effects scenes were scrapped, although storyboards were made in anticipation of a possible "expanded" version. They included a "bird's eye" view of Kansas City at the moment of two nuclear detonations as seen from a Boeing 737 airliner on approach to the city's airport, as well as simulated newsreel footage of U.S. troops in West Germany taking up positions in preparation of advancing Soviet armored units, and the tactical nuclear exchange in Germany between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, which follows after the attacking Warsaw Pact force breaks through and overwhelms the NATO lines.
ABC censors severely toned down scenes to reduce the body count or severe burn victims. Meyer refused to remove key scenes but reportedly some eight and a half minutes of excised footage still exist, significantly more graphic. Some footage was reinstated for the film's release on home video. Additionally, the nuclear attack scene was longer and supposed to feature very graphic and very accurate shots of what happens to a human body during a nuclear blast. Examples included people being set on fire, their flesh carbonizing, being burned to the bone, eyes melting, faceless heads, skin hanging, deaths from flying glass and debris, limbs torn off, being crushed, blown from buildings by the shockwave, and people in fallout shelters suffocating during the firestorm. Also cut were images of radiation sickness, as well as graphic post-attack violence from survivors such as food riots, looting, and general lawlessness as authorities attempted to restore order.
One cut scene shows surviving students battling over food. The two sides were to be athletes versus the science students under the guidance of Professor Huxley. Another brief scene later cut related to a firing squad, where two U.S. soldiers are blindfolded and executed. In this scene, an officer reads the charges, verdict and sentence, as a bandaged chaplain reads the Last Rites. A similar sequence occurs in a 1965 UK-produced faux documentary, The War Game. In the initial 1983 broadcast of The Day After, when the U.S. president addresses the nation, the voice was an imitation of then-President Ronald Reagan (who later stated that he watched the film and was deeply moved). In subsequent broadcasts, that voice was overdubbed by a stock actor.
Home video releases in the U.S. and internationally come in at various running times, many listed at 126 or 127 minutes; full screen (4:3 aspect ratio) seems to be more common than widescreen. RCA videodiscs of the early 1980s were limited to 2 hours per disc, so that full screen release appears to be closest to what originally aired on ABC in the US. A 2001 U.S. VHS version (Anchor Bay Entertainment, Troy, Michigan) lists a running time of 122 minutes. A 1995 double laser disc "director's cut" version (Image Entertainment) runs 127 minutes, includes commentary by director Nicholas Meyer and is "presented in its 1.75:1 European theatrical aspect ratio" (according to the LD jacket).
Two different German DVD releases run 122 and 115 minutes; edits reportedly downplay the Soviet Union's role.
A two disc Blu-ray special edition was released in 2018 by video specialty label Kino Lorber, presenting the film in high definition. The release contains both the 122-minute television cut, presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio as broadcast, as well as the 127-minute theatrical cut presented in a 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio.
On its original broadcast (Sunday, November 20, 1983), John Cullum warned viewers before the film was premiered that the film contains graphic and disturbing scenes, and encouraged parents who have young children watching, to watch together and discuss the issues of nuclear warfare. ABC and local TV affiliates opened 1-800 hotlines with counselors standing by. There were no commercial breaks after the nuclear attack. ABC then aired a live debate on Viewpoint, ABC's occasional discussion program hosted by Nightline's Ted Koppel, featuring scientist Carl Sagan, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Elie Wiesel, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, General Brent Scowcroft and commentator William F. Buckley Jr.. Sagan argued against nuclear proliferation, while Buckley promoted the concept of nuclear deterrence. Sagan described the arms race in the following terms: "Imagine a room awash in gasoline, and there are two implacable enemies in that room. One of them has nine thousand matches, the other seven thousand matches. Each of them is concerned about who's ahead, who's stronger."
The film and its subject matter were prominently featured in the news media both before and after the broadcast, including on such covers as TIME, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, and TV Guide.
Critics tended to claim the film was either sensationalizing nuclear war or that it was too tame. The special effects and realistic portrayal of nuclear war received praise. The film received 12 Emmy nominations and won two Emmy awards. It was rated "way above average" in Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, until all reviews for movies exclusive to TV were removed from the publication.
In the United States, 38.5 million households, or an estimated 100 million people, watched The Day After on its first broadcast, a record audience for a made-for-TV movie. Producers Sales Organization released the film theatrically around the world, in the Eastern Bloc, China, North Korea and Cuba (this international version contained six minutes of footage not in the telecast edition). Since commercials are not sold in these markets, Producers Sales Organization failed to gain revenue to the tune of an undisclosed sum. Years later this international version was released to tape by Embassy Home Entertainment.
Actor and former Nixon adviser Ben Stein, critical of the movie's message (i.e. that the strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction would lead to a war), wrote in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner what life might be like in an America under Soviet occupation. Stein's idea was eventually dramatized in the miniseries Amerika, also broadcast by ABC.
The New York Post accused Meyer of being a traitor, writing, "Why is Nicholas Meyer doing Yuri Andropov's work for him?" Much press comment focused on the unanswered question in the film of who started the war. Richard Grenier in the National Review accused The Day After of promoting "unpatriotic" and pro-Soviet attitudes.
Television critic Matt Zoller Seitz in his 2016 book co-written with Alan Sepinwall titled TV (The Book) named The Day After as the 4th greatest American TV-movie of all time, writing: "Very possibly the bleakest TV-movie ever broadcast, The Day After is an explicitly antiwar statement dedicated entirely to showing audiences what would happen if nuclear weapons were used on civilian populations in the United States."
U.S. President Ronald Reagan watched the film more than a month before its screening on Columbus Day, October 10, 1983. He wrote in his diary that the film was "very effective and left me greatly depressed", and that it changed his mind on the prevailing policy on a "nuclear war". The film was also screened for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A government advisor who attended the screening, a friend of Meyer's, told him: "If you wanted to draw blood, you did it. Those guys sat there like they were turned to stone." In 1987, Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which resulted in the banning and reducing of their nuclear arsenal. In Reagan's memoirs, he drew a direct line from the film to the signing. Reagan supposedly later sent Meyer a telegram after the summit, saying: "Don't think your movie didn't have any part of this, because it did." During an interview in 2010, Meyer said that this telegram was a myth, and that the sentiment stemmed from a friend's letter to Meyer; he suggested the story had origins in editing notes received from the White House during the production, which "may have been a joke, but it wouldn't surprise me, him being an old Hollywood guy."
The film also had impact outside the U.S. In 1987, during the era of Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika reforms, the film was shown on Soviet television. Four years earlier, Georgia Rep. Elliott Levitas and 91 co-sponsors introduced a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives "[expressing] the sense of the Congress that the American Broadcasting Company, the Department of State, and the U.S. Information Agency should work to have the television movie The Day After aired to the Soviet public."
The Day After won two Emmy Awards and received 10 other Emmy nominations.
Emmy Awards won:
Emmy Award nominations:
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