The Day After
The Day After is an American 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 still held as recently as a 2009 report.
The film postulates a fictional war between NATO forces and the Warsaw Pact countries 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.
Uniquely for a Western movie made during the Cold War, it was broadcast on the Soviet Union's state TV in 1987.
PlotThe story follows several citizens—and people they encounter—in and around Kansas City, Missouri, and the college town of Lawrence, Kansas, to its west.
The film's narrative is structured as a before-during-after scenario of a nuclear attack: the first segment introduces the various characters and their stories; the second shows the nuclear disaster itself; and the third details the effects of the fallout on the characters.
During the first segment, as the characters are introduced, the chronology of events leading up to the war is depicted entirely via television and radio news broadcasts, as well as communications among U.S. military personnel and hearsay, enhanced by characters' reactions and analyses of the events.
Chronology of the warThe Soviet Union begins a military buildup in East Germany with the goal of intimidating the United States, the United Kingdom, and France into withdrawing from West Berlin. When the United States does not back down, Soviet armored divisions are sent to the border between East and West Germany.
During the late hours of Friday, September 15, news broadcasts report a "widespread rebellion among several divisions of the East German Army." As a result, the Soviets blockade West Berlin. Tensions mount, and the United States issues an ultimatum that the Soviets stand down from the blockade by 6:00 a.m. the next day, and noncompliance will be interpreted as an act of war. The Soviets refuse, and the President of the United States orders all U.S. military forces around the world on DEFCON 2 alert.
On Saturday, September 16, NATO forces in West Germany invade East Germany through the Helmstedt-Marienborn checkpoint to free Berlin. The Soviets hold the Marienborn corridor and inflict heavy casualties on NATO troops. Two Soviet MiG-25s cross into West German airspace and bomb a NATO munitions storage facility, also striking a school and a hospital. A subsequent radio broadcast states that Moscow is being evacuated. At this point, major U.S. cities begin mass evacuations as well. Unconfirmed reports soon follow that nuclear weapons were used in Wiesbaden and Frankfurt. Meanwhile, in the Persian Gulf, naval warfare erupts, as radio reports tell of ship sinkings on both sides.
The Soviet Army eventually reaches the Rhine. Seeking to prevent Soviet forces from invading France and causing the rest of Western Europe to fall, NATO halts the Soviet advance by airbursting three low-yield tactical nuclear weapons over advancing Soviet troops. Soviet forces counter by launching a nuclear strike on NATO headquarters in Brussels. In response, the United States Strategic Air Command begins scrambling B-52 bombers.
The Soviet Air Force destroys a BMEWS station at RAF Fylingdales in England, and another at Beale Air Force Base in California. Meanwhile, on board the EC-135 Looking Glass aircraft, the order comes in from the President for a full nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. A Minuteman Missile crew launch ten Minuteman Missiles from their launch station at Whiteman Air Force Base. Dozens of other launch facilities do the same. Within minutes, over 1,000 missiles from the U.S. are launched. Almost simultaneously, an Air Force officer receives a report that a massive Soviet nuclear assault against the United States has been launched, further updated with a report that over 300 Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles are inbound. It is deliberately left unclear whether the Soviet Union or the United States launches the main nuclear attack first.
The first salvo of the Soviet nuclear attack on the Midwestern United States occurs when a large-yield nuclear weapon air bursts at high altitude over Kansas City, Missouri. This generates an electromagnetic pulse that shuts down the electric power grid to nearby Whiteman Air Force Base's operable Minuteman II missile silos and the surrounding areas. Thirty seconds later, incoming Soviet ICBMs begin to hit military and population targets. Higginsville, Kansas City, Sedalia, and all the way south to El Dorado Springs, Missouri, are blanketed with ground burst nuclear weapons. While the story provides no specifics, it strongly suggests that U.S. cities, military, and industrial bases are heavily damaged or destroyed. The aftermath depicts the Midwestern and Northwestern United States as a blackened wasteland of burned-out cities filled with burn, blast, and radiation victims. Eventually, the U.S. President delivers a radio address in which he declares there is now a ceasefire between the United States and the Soviet Union, but he states the United States has not surrendered.
StorylineDr. Russell Oakes lives in the upper-class Brookside neighborhood with his wife and works in a hospital in downtown Kansas City. He is scheduled to teach a hematology class at the University of Kansas hospital in nearby Lawrence, Kansas, and is en route when he hears an alarming Emergency Broadcast System alert on his car radio. Oakes attempts to return to his home via the K-10 freeway and is the only eastbound motorist. The nuclear attack begins, and Kansas City is gripped with panic as air raid sirens wail. Oakes' car is permanently disabled by the EMP from the first high-altitude detonation, as are all motor vehicles and electricity. His family, many colleagues, and almost all of Kansas City's population are killed. He walks to Lawrence, which has been severely damaged from the blasts, and, at the university hospital, treats the wounded with Dr. Sam Hachiya and Nurse Nancy Bauer. Also at the university, science Professor Joe Huxley and students use a Geiger counter to monitor the nuclear fallout outside. They build a makeshift radio to maintain contact with Dr. Oakes at the hospital as well as to locate any other broadcasting survivors beyond their area.
Airman Billy McCoy is stationed at a Minuteman missile silo near Whiteman Air Force Base, and is called to duty during the DEFCON 2 alert. His crew are among the first to witness the initial missile launches, indicating full-scale nuclear war. After it becomes clear that a Soviet counterstrike is imminent, the airmen panic. Several stubbornly insist that they should stay at their post and take shelter in the silo, while others, including McCoy, point out that it is futile. McCoy tells them they have done their jobs and speeds away in an Air Force truck to retrieve his wife and child in Sedalia, but the truck is permanently disabled by an EMP from an airburst detonation. McCoy abandons the truck and takes shelter inside an overturned semi truck trailer. After the attack, McCoy walks towards a town and finds an abandoned store, where he takes provisions, while gunfire is heard in the distance. While standing in line for a drink of water from a well pump, McCoy befriends a man who is mute and shares his provisions. McCoy asks another man along the road about Sedalia, and the man indicates that Sedalia and Windsor no longer exist. As McCoy and his companion both begin to suffer the effects of radiation sickness, they leave a refugee camp and head to the hospital at Lawrence, where McCoy ultimately succumbs to radiation sickness.
Farmer Jim Dahlberg and his family live in rural Harrisonville, Missouri, very close to a field of missile silos. While the family is preparing for the wedding of their elder daughter, Denise, to KU senior Bruce Gallatin, Jim prepares for the impending attack by converting their basement into a makeshift fallout shelter. As the missiles are launched, he urges his family downstairs into the basement. While running to the shelter, the Dahlbergs' son, Danny, inadvertently looks at the missile explosion and is instantly blinded.
KU student Stephen Klein, while hitchhiking home to Joplin, Missouri, stumbles upon the Dahlberg's farm and persuades the family to take him in. After several days in the basement, Denise, distraught over the situation, escapes from the basement and runs about the field that is cluttered with dead animals. She sees a clear blue sky and thinks the worst is over; however, the field is actually covered in radioactive fallout. Klein goes after her, attempting to warn her about the invisible nuclear radiation, but Denise runs from him. Eventually, Klein is able to chase Denise back to safety in the basement, but not before Denise runs to the stairs to find her wedding dress. During a makeshift church service, while the minister tries to express how lucky they are to have survived, Denise begins to bleed externally from her groin due to radiation sickness.
Klein takes Danny and Denise to Lawrence for treatment. Dr. Hachiya attempts to treat Danny, but Klein also develops radiation sickness. Dahlberg, upon returning from an emergency farmers' meeting, confronts a group of silent survivors squatting on his farm and attempts to persuade them to move somewhere else, only to be shot and killed mid-sentence by one of the squatters.
Ultimately, the situation at the hospital becomes grim. Dr. Oakes collapses from exhaustion and, upon awakening several days later, learns that Nurse Bauer has died from meningitis. Oakes, suffering from terminal radiation sickness, decides to return to Kansas City to see his home for the last time, while Dr. Hachiya stays behind. Oakes witnesses U.S. military personnel blindfolding and executing looters. After somehow managing to locate where his home was, he finds the charred remains of his wife's wristwatch and a family huddled in the ruins. Oakes angrily orders them to leave his home. The family silently offers Oakes food, causing him to collapse in despair, as a member of the family comforts him.
As the scene fades to black, Professor Huxley calls into his makeshift radio: "Hello? Is anybody there? Anybody at all?" There is no response.
Cast; The Oakeses
- Jason Robards as Dr. Russell Oakes
- Georgann Johnson as Helen Oakes
- Kyle Aletter as Marilyn Oakes
- John Cullum as Jim Dahlberg
- Bibi Besch as Eve Dahlberg
- Lori Lethin as Denise Dahlberg
- Doug Scott as Danny Dahlberg
- Ellen Anthony as Joleen Dahlberg
- JoBeth Williams as Nurse Nancy Bauer
- Calvin Jung as Dr. Sam Hachiya
- Lin McCarthy as Dr. Austin
- Rosanna Huffman as Dr. Wallenberg
- George Petrie as Dr. Landowska
- Jonathan Estrin as Julian French
- Steve Guttenberg as Stephen Klein
- John Lithgow as Joe Huxley
- Amy Madigan as Alison Ransom
- William Allen Young as Airman First Class Billy McCoy
- Jeff East as Bruce Gallatin
- Dennis Lipscomb as Reverend Walker
- Clayton Day as Dennis Hendry
- Antonie Becker as Ellen Hendry
- Stephen Furst as Aldo
- Arliss Howard as Tom Cooper
- Stan Wilson as Vinnie Conrad
- Harry Bugin as Man at phone
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 . 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 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.
In any case, 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.
EditingABC 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.
BroadcastThe 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.
MusicComposer David Raksin wrote original music and adapted music from The River, 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.
Deleted and alternative scenesDue to the film's being shortened from the original three hours 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 original broadcast of The Day After, when the U.S. president addresses the nation, the voice was an imitation of Ronald Reagan. 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 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 lists a running time of 122 minutes. A 1995 double laser disc "director's cut" version runs 127 minutes, includes commentary by director Nicholas Meyer and is "presented in its 1.75:1 European theatrical aspect ratio".
Two different German DVD releases run 122 and 115 minutes; edits reportedly downplay the Soviet Union's role.
ReceptionOn its original broadcast, John Cullum warned viewers before the film was premiered that the film contains graphic and disturbing scenes, and encourages 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, hosted by Nightlines Ted Koppel, featuring scientist Carl Sagan, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Elie Wiesel, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, General Brent Scowcroft and conservative 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. 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.
Commentator Ben Stein, critical of the movie's message, 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 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."
Effects on policymakersPresident 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." Four years later, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed and 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." However, in a 2010 interview, 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 Mikhail 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 " 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."
AccoladesThe Day After won two Emmy Awards and received 10 other Emmy nominations.
Emmy Awards won:
- Outstanding Film Sound Editing for a Limited Series or a Special
- Outstanding Achievement in Special Visual Effects
- Outstanding Achievement in Hairstyling
- Outstanding Achievement in Makeup
- Outstanding Art Direction for a Limited Series or a Special
- Outstanding Cinematography for a Limited Series or a Special
- Outstanding Directing in a Limited Series or a Special
- Outstanding Drama/Comedy Special
- Outstanding Film Editing for a Limited Series or a Special
- Outstanding Film Sound Mixing for a Limited Series or a Special
- Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or a Special
- Outstanding Writing in a Limited Series or a Special