The Day After (1983)

[7.0]

Citizens of Kansas City, Missouri, experience nuclear attack and radioactive fall-out in this horrific drama helmed by director Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan, Time After Time). Two-time Oscar winner Jason Robards leads the ensemble cast as a doctor who can barely maintain order at a hospital overwhelmed by incoming patients. The story is also told from the perspective of a farming family holed up in their basement, a group of students bunkered underground at a university, and an air force pilot trying to reunite with his wife.

The Day After was a sensational TV movie that remains the highest-rated of all time. (It was also released theatrically in Europe.) Part of its success was certainly pre-engineered by ABC television, who took advantage of our collective fear of nuclear devastation during the waning years of the Cold War. Politics aside, it’s essentially a disaster movie in the mold of Earthquake or The Towering Inferno. The difference, though, is what makes the film so unsettling — it could really happen.

The nuclear bombs detonate before the half-way mark, preceded by traffic jams of people in mass exodus and runs on gas stations and grocery stores — images that hold just as much potency today as ever. The bomb sequence contains a lot of stock footage and some less-than-convincing effects, but from a storytelling perspective, it’s devastating. Half the cast perishes in that moment, and most of the rest are immediately exposed to radiation. The film doesn’t quite get the concept of ‘nuclear winter’ right — science was still figuring that out at the time. But it does feature the crippling effect of ‘electromagnetic pulse’ in the form of a nuclear event in the sky that renders all electronic equipment inoperable, effectively pulling humankind technologically back to the stone age.

The rest of the movie is supremely depressing, though surely nowhere near as bad as a real nuclear fallout. We watch characters succumb to radiation. Their skin boils and their hair falls out. Mass graves are dug. People go insane. People with precious resources are murdered by people who want them. For everyone who wasn’t immediately vaporized in the blasts, a new thought suddenly creeps into their minds — what’s the use?

President Ronald Reagan saw The Day After and wrote in his diary that it greatly affected him. In his second term, he worked with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to de-escalate the arms race. If The Day After had anything to do with his decision, then its impact goes far beyond its Nielsen ratings. The film is a warning to the world, as much today as in 1983, about the thin line between nuclear armament and our mutually-assured destruction.

With JoBeth Williams, Bibi Besch, John Lithgow, John Cullum, Steve Guttenberg, Amy Madigan, and Jeff East.