The Day After

It’s hard for me to remember sometimes that there is now a whole generation of people walking around who have no memory of what it was like to live every day under the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Oh, sure, there’s still the threat that some terrorist group will get their hands on a nuke. That would be pretty bad. But during the Cold War, we all lived with the knowledge that a few bad decisions in Washington or Moscow could result in a nuclear apocalypse so horrific that it would be, for all intents and purposes, the end of the world.

What’s the difference? A terrorist nuke would destroy one city, but the rest of the world would go on. Conflict between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R would have resulted in all cities, everywhere, being destroyed — either directly by missile strike, or indirectly by fallout, nuclear winter and other assorted post-World-War-III complications.

It’s also hard to remember, through all the hagiographic haze that has settled around the memory of Ronald Reagan, that in his first term he quite deliberately set out on a course that brought America and Russia closer to the brink of this disaster then they had been in decades.

The late 1960s and 1970s had been the age of “détente” — an easing of tensions between the superpowers, who both remembered how close the Cuban Missile Crisis had brought them to annihilation. Reagan, however, viewed détente as an admission of weakness, and chose instead to deliberately ratchet up tensions between the superpowers; he embarked on an unprecedented peacetime military buildup, relaunching nuclear weapons programs like the B-1 bomber the Carter Administration had cancelled, speeding up development of others such as the “MX” missile, and launching entirely new projects like the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”). Reagan also embarked on military operations designed to bring American and Russian interests directly into confrontation, such as aiding anti-Communist rebels in Central America.

The result of all this was an increasing awareness in the world of the risk that nuclear war posed to everybody. People started to fear that Reagan’s belligerence would start the world down a slope it would not be able to climb back up again. And in 1983 — at the height of the tension — ABC spoke to these fears by airing a remarkable TV movie entitled The Day After.

The premise of The Day After was simple — it aimed to show, as clearly and realistically as possible, how a nuclear war between the superpowers would impact the lives of ordinary people in America. It was set primarily in the state of Kansas, because that state, which contained many American missile launch sites, would have come under direct attack in any nuclear war; the Russians would have hit it hoping to knock out the American missiles before they could be launched. After the missiles landed, the rest of the movie focused on isolated bands of survivors trying to pull things back together as best they could without descending into anarchy.

The movie was a landmark in television history; its special effects were unsurpassed for its time, and the audience it attracted — 100 million viewers — was the largest in U.S. television history. It sparked a national debate about the risks of nuclear confrontation and helped to push the idea of nuclear disarmament into the mainstream. That idea, and the movement that formed around it, eventually bore fruit in the form of the INF treaty — an agreement between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to reduce the number of short-range nuclear weapons deployed on both sides. The INF treaty was the first treaty ever signed between the superpowers that resulted in an actual reduction of the number of deployed nuclear weapons.

The movie contained several unforgettably harrowing sequences. For reference, here is one of them: the initial nuclear exchange, as the residents of Kansas City and Lawrence, Kansas, realize in horror that the missiles they have lived next door to for years are being launched, with the first Soviet missiles arriving just minutes later.

(The movie depicts the first blast being detonated high in the atmosphere, causing cars to stall on the highway. This may seem unrealistic — a nuke that just stalls your car? — but it is actually a quite accurate depiction of nuclear tactics; that high-altitude burst would cause a massive electromagnetic pulse that would short out every electronic circuit within miles, causing cars to stall and airplanes to fall out of the sky. The idea was to use this EMP to make it harder for victims in the target area to flee from the other missiles following behind.)

So why am I writing about this? Because I noticed the other day that the Sci Fi Channel has been re-airing The Day After. At first I thought this was good news, because this movie is an important historical artifact, and more people should see it — especially those who do not remember what it was like to live under the nuclear Sword of Damocles.

Then I watched it. And I was disturbed to discover that Sci Fi has edited the hell out of it. Even more disappointingly, they have edited away most of the most frightening parts of the movie. In the Sci Fi version of the nuclear exchange sequence I showed you above, for example, we don’t see the people being vaporized on the streets. We don’t see the sheets of flame setting people on fire. We don’t see the farmer’s son being blinded by the nuclear flash. We see buildings collapsing, and mushroom clouds rising, but we don’t see people dying. Which is kind of contrary to the entire point of the movie.

(Note: yes, I’m aware that the YouTube clip above has the Sci Fi “bug” on it. It must be from some earlier airing, because the ones I’ve seen have not included this footage. This looks like an older version of the bug to me, so perhaps at some point years ago they were airing it unedited.)

There’s two reasons why they might have chosen to go this way. One is financial; The Day After is a long movie (three hours plus), and when it was originally aired, ABC chose not to run any commercials after the first nuclear explosion because they felt interrupting for commercials would lessen the film’s impact. That was a brave artistic decision for them to make, but Sci Fi may have felt that they could not afford to follow suit, so they had to take some movie content out to make room for commercials. That would explain why they would edit the movie down, but not why these sequences in particular would be edited out. (Indeed, since they are really the most memorable scenes in the film, you would think they would be the last to hit the cutting room floor.)

The other possibility is that Sci Fi thought that their audience’s delicate sensibilities simply couldn’t handle the graphic depictions of nuclear annihilation in the film, so they chose to leave them out. (How the sensibilities of the basic cable viewer of 2008 could be considered more sensitive than those of the network TV viewer of 25 years before, I have no idea.)

Either way, shame on Sci Fi for choosing to show a sanitized version of this important film. The Day After is not just another made-for-TV movie; it’s a part of history, and it helps us look back into the anxieties of a bygone age and understand why people feared that the end of the world might be coming nigh. Cutting out the sequences that made the film’s point most forcefully neuters it to the point where it would probably be better for them not to show it at all.

So, if you see The Day After in your Sci Fi program listing, skip it. You’re much better off renting or buying the unedited version on DVD, which has not only all the footage that aired on American TV but six extra minutes that were added for theatrical release in Europe as well.