The Soviet sleeper agents of The Americans have murdered innocents in cold blood and spent years living next door to an FBI counterterrorism agent, but on Wednesday night’s episode, they saw something that really freaked them out: The Day After, a fictionalized account of the aftermath of nuclear war. On Nov. 20, 1983, more than 100 million Americans joined Philip and Elizabeth Jennings in watching the ABC broadcast, which came as Cold War tensions were at a terrifying peak. In March, Ronald Reagan branded the Soviet Union an “evil empire”; in September, a Soviet fighter shot down a Korean Air Lines plane that had flown into prohibited airspace. Just weeks before The Day After was broadcast, NATO staged an elaborate war game that the Soviets came perilously close to mistaking for a bona fide attack.
Directed by Nicholas Meyer, then fresh off Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Day After looks like a relic now, but it was never meant to stand the test of time. It’s not as profoundly unsettling as contemporary post-apocalypse movies like Testament or Threads, or as meticulous as Peter Watkins’ The War Game, whose documentary trappings lent its account of the effects of a nuclear bomb dropped on the U.K. a jarring immediacy. But Meyer knew his audience. He wanted to make a TV movie that looked like TV, with the same familiar characters and archetypes, the better to reach into people’s living rooms and sock them in the gut. In his commentary for the film’s laserdisc, Meyer explains, “I never viewed this as a movie per se, more like a big public service announcement. I wanted it to be as crude and in your face as possible.” A few days before the broadcast, the Christian Science Monitor predicted the film was “liable to have as much effect upon the people who watch as the evening news coverage of the Vietnam war seemed to have on viewers in the 1960s and ’70s.”
The Day After is set largely in and around Lawrence, Kansas, a setting chosen in part because as the nation’s geographical center it was, almost literally, the heart of America. As news reports tick off a growing global crisis that seems to begin with a Soviet invasion of West Germany—the precise nature of the conflict, including who fires the first shot, is deliberately left opaque—dozens of unassuming Midwesterners go about their day, with no warning that for many of them, it will be their last. In a pointed departure from the star-studded disaster movies of the 1970s, Meyer cast largely un- or little-known actors so as to not distract viewers with prior associations: For all intents and purposes, they might as well have been the characters they played. The exceptions were Jason Robards, whose genial hematologist is the sprawling dramatis personae’s closest thing to a protagonist, and John Cullum, as a gruff farmer whose cellar becomes a makeshift fallout shelter. Cullum also appeared on ABC before the broadcast to warn parents about “the graphic depiction of nuclear explosions and their devastating effects.” “The emotional impact of these scenes,” he continued, “may be unusually disturbing.”
The nuclear attack itself, which comes about halfway through The Day After’s two-hour running time, still has the power to shock. Or perhaps it’s just the fear of a child who was too young for his parents to allow him to watch but still felt the fear in the air, knew that something might happen that was so bad even grown-ups were scared of it. I watched The Day After this week with a sense of detachment, more studying it as a historical artifact than gripped by its story, but when the bombs started going off over Lawrence, I was rapt, and more surprisingly, I was afraid.
The attack sequence’s effects are primitive even by the standards of 1983, and Meyer was denied access to military footage of A-bomb tests that could have added a dash of verisimilitude. But the forced simplicity works in The Day After’s favor. Meyer knew that the true horrors of a nuclear holocaust were more than viewers could bear, so he walked them up to the edge and let them know they were lucky not to be seeing more. (Meyer battled with ABC over some of his more graphic images, but he avoided the fate of Watkins’ The War Game, which was judged “too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting” in 1965 and not show on TV for another 20 years.) After the final scene, in which a radiation-poisoned Robards returns to the flattened wreckage of what was once Kansas City, Missouri, The Day After closes with on-screen text informing us that the preceding calamities were, “in all likelihood, less severe than the destruction that would actually occur in the event of a full nuclear strike against the United States.”
Even so, The Day After shook Americans, including the president, to their core. In his journal on Oct. 10, Ronald Reagan, who’d seen an advance copy, wrote, “It is powerfully done, all $7 million worth. It’s very effective and left me greatly depressed … My own reaction: We have to do all we can to have a deterrent and see there is never a nuclear war.” He must have found it particular unnerving to hear a facsimile of his own voice emerging from the TV set, when, after the bombing, the film’s president addresses the nation to assure them that the U.S. has “survived this terrible tribulation.” (The Reagan sound-alike’s voice was replaced for future airings after objections that its inclusion amounted to a political attack.)
The Day After did not shift the arms race all by itself; in a panel discussion immediately following the broadcast, William F. Buckley charged that the film threatened to weaken the U.S., and Henry Kissinger called it “simple-minded.” But that televised debate, which also included Elie Wiesel, Carl Sagan, and Secretary of State George Schultz, shows what a monumental event it was. Our fears have shifted now: We’re more concerned about strange men on airplanes than death raining from the skies. But if anything, we’re more deeply mired in denial, confronting our anxieties through pop-cultural proxy—one more superhero movie about a mad zealot threatening to destroy the world—rather than facing them head on.