07 January 2007

[zeitgeist_sunday] The Days After "The Day After"


708 In 1983 dread of The Big One Going Up was about as big as it ever was going to get. I remember those times, as a younger one, well. Back then, Americans were Americans, the Russians were the Soviets, and I think we all kind of lived in denial most of the time.

The preferred delivery for each power's serving of "nukey" was ballistically, of course, over the North Pole (whatever tactical mixup in what was universally assumed to be the soon-radioactive-wasteland of the Germanies important, but notwithstanding from yours truly's POV). And, hidden in the country's midsection, like that crazy aunt nobody ever talked about, were the death-dealers and, obversely from the Soviet POV, the targets.

When I think about it, I realize that for many many years we were, at any time, about thirty dependable minutes from national oblivion. Sounds melodramatic, but it's the truth–transit time from the Soviet silo fields to the American heartland (and vice versa) was 30 minutes, and the early warning systems that were envisioned in the days of bomber planes (when one had enough time to evacuate out of the way) had become early-warning-to-get-good-with-your-maker systems.

Since nuclear destruction paranoia has returned to vogue with the CBS series Jericho (which appears to be delivering on the hope that that network now has thier own version of Lost (and is therefore now fashionable), we can't help but go over our own lifetime immersion in nukey fear and loathing.

Actually, we enjoy Jericho (hell, we have to watch something until the next run of Hell's Kitchen, neh?). Perhaps it was the times we grew up in, but the idea of having to hack it on one's own as a community, group, or whatever (we must put it at this point that we have a hold on at the County Library for Cormac McCarthy's The Road) is a challenging one, and enjoying living in a technological society without somehow reminding oneself that it can be much different and harder with a single event strikes us as the ultimate gluttony.

In 1983, the ABC television network aired a singular movie, The Day After (for you British types, think Threads with a thick American TV cheese topping). There are a lot of differing opinions on the subject, and the movie recieved more brickbats than bouquets it seemed, but I and about half the TV viewing public in America at the time ate it up.

Maybe we liked the spectacle, who knows.

Latterly, a couple of clips on YouTube of the attack scenes from the movie enticed us to find the movie. You can get it on DVD now for a song at places like Suncoast and "for your entertainment".

It still, despite its flaws, was (and is) and important statement. Before the salad days of the 80's, the Conventional Wisdom held that a nuclear war was pretty much it–as a cynical satirical nuclear preparedness poster of the day advised, loosen all tight clothing, sit in a comfortable chair away from the window and when the flash comes, put your head down between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye, and not just that, but the big Soviet bear was pretty much the status quo and we could expect that to remain for good (Germany 1990...who knew?). But as the 80's came to full flower, the idea that for quite a few beleaguered survivors, the day after would come, and those people would have to somehow make thier way through it. Many would, it was thought, die trying.

The Day After wasn't so much about the war as the lives of the people struggling through the catastrophe. If one thing shows through the cheesiness of the 80's TV gloss, it's that; the marquee star (Jason Robards) plays a doctor that we immediately like; his closing scene in the movie is as close to a tear-jerker as there can be. And the sight of a post-Diner, pre-Police Academy Steve Guttenberg is priceless.

They all delivered believable, sympathetic performances, and pretty much made the film.

The effects were the eye-candy, the loss-leader designed to bring you in. It worked very well. To produce the well-known mushroom cloud, the producers couldn't get atomic explosion footage so they had to improvise: as it turns out, dropping paint and/or oil into a water bath, then inverting the resulting image produces a convincing mushroom cloud. The scene of the explosions on what's supposed to be I-70 about thirty miles out from Kansas City is astoundingly effective: the sound fills the experience, and colors are reduced to a duotone of black and a very hot yellow-orange, with what can still be seen though the decreasing glare in soft focus, increasing the feeling of surreality and helplessness. And, in a clever stroke, the effects of EMP (then just a new buzzword for the public at large) are shown on the mundane level.

The story of the dying attack survivors, which is pretty much the second half of the movie, was pretty brave–at least for American television at the time. The deleterious effects, as were understood at the time, of radiation sickness were exhibited with a relatively unflinching eye (and are pretty offputting at times). And characters in the movie who we may have attached hopes to and developed affection for are killed just for being in an inopportune place at the moment–even one who looked like they should have been able to get away.

Notably, in stark contrast to the first part of the movie, which is saturated with off-stage references to the geopolitical crisis and connections beyond the reach of the characters, the world of the second part of the move is reduced to just that of the world of the survivors–no news, no outside world, and no information save for a radio broadcast from the President, which raises as many questions at it answers; we never know who fired first, and the last thing heard in the move is the sound of a hopeful (but unreplyed-to) broadcast from John Lithgow's professor character trying see if someone-anyone-is "out there".

We won't dwell too much on the "x-ray" scenes, though we do admit that they were tailor-made to an American television sensiblity of the day. Like we've intimated, Threads, this ain't.

At the end of this ramble, we return to a feeling we've had since being a kid and being told that us and our rival on the other side of the world could snuff each other out in a relative instant. That though the technological world around us seems stable a single event could eliminate it in an instant, and not to acknowledge that fact is, as we said, the ultimate gluttony. Realizing this is one of the beginnings of worldly wisdom–which is a bitch, true enough, but something necessary, at least if one's to be intellectually honest with oneself.

Oh, and some bits of trivia:
  • Legend has it that the tank used to generate the mushroom cloud effect was to be subsequently used in the production of the Mutara Nebula effect for the movie Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.
  • In the series Jericho, Lawrence KS is apparently obliterated in the still-mysterious nuclear attacks that kicked off the series. This could be an homage to The Day After, as well as opening scenes of the series, some of which, we understand, were filmed in Lawrence.

(Images audaciously ripped off from the corresponding article at Wikipedia...Shh! Don't tell The Man!)

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2 comments:

schlockstar said...

I'm pretty much glued to the TV/a book if the subject matter is nuclear war, super-flu, or apocalypse. Fave book is probably Matheson's "I am Legend" which I hear is being re-made for the third time.

"The Day After" was pretty heavy for its time. I remember the next day at school and the discussions.

Ever watch Testament from 1983? Wow.

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

I'm pretty much glued to the TV/a book if the subject matter is nuclear war, super-flu, or apocalypse. Fave book is probably Matheson's "I am Legend" which I hear is being re-made for the third time.

Yeah, me too. I often wonder what it is about our modern society that makes its own demise so damned interesting. Maybe it's because we're the first global society, as well as the first one (of which I know of anyway) that has it in our power to cause our own destruction in such nasty, spectactular ways.

"The Day After" was pretty heavy for its time. I remember the next day at school and the discussions.

I really agree with that; I recall the criticism that it was lightweight, but if I recall correctly, back then the pinnacles of American television at the time were shows like Dallas and Three's Company, so TDA, even if it was kind of lightweight it still was terribly courageous and uncompromising for its time and context.

Even after I re-saw it this time I still came away asking myself what I would do, for instance, in the case of the silo crewman who went AWOL while the missles flew in a doomed attempt to reunite with his family.

The only people who were facing that question back then were people being made fun of as "survivalists" and "crackpots". This is not, however, to say that some modern "survivalists" are not ridiculous, however.

Ever watch Testament from 1983? Wow.

No, but I'm planning on it.

Here's a hint for you: most if not all of the British answer to TDA, a movie called Threads is available for viewing right now on YouTube. Someone broke it up into 15 or 16 9-10 minute segements. Grim.