The Outline World Dispatch

The TV movie that terrified America

‘The Day After’ showed the country a nuclear war in its backyard.
The Outline World Dispatch

The TV movie that terrified America

‘The Day After’ showed the country a nuclear war in its backyard.

In the 1980s, there was a made-for-TV movie about a missile attack that was so realistic, it terrified America and scared the president into action. The Day After put the reality of nuclear war into America’s living rooms. On this episode of The Outline World Dispatch, 60 dB reporter Hannah McBride speaks to Nicholas Meyer, who directed the 1983 film.


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Nicholas Meyer: I thought of it as a smokey the bear, “only you can prevent forest fires” type... just the facts, just the facts. That's what it's going to be like. You'll be shopping, and you'll be nuked.

Hannah McBride: The movie takes place in my hometown – Kansas City, Missouri – and Lawrence, Kansas, a college town about an hour west.

Hannah McBride: Nick, you directed this film. Why put a story that’s so dramatic – one about nuclear war – in a place that seems so ordinary?

Nicholas Meyer: That's sort of what The Day After was asking. Can tragedy happen to an ordinary person? Forget about presidents and war rooms and missile silos. They picked Kansas City and Lawrence as more or less the geographical dead center of the bullseye, if you like, of the continental US.

Hannah McBride: About halfway through the movie is the actual bomb blast. And it’s this long, intense scene. It shows the bombing itself, a combination of firebombs and archival footage of real nuclear bomb blasts and animations of people being disintegrated. Each one of those sizzle sounds is someone literally disintegrating into a skeleton. And then all of it just fades to black. It’s pretty blunt.

Nicholas Meyer: You had to walk a fine line with this movie. People have a remote control in their hands. So we had to make a movie that conveyed the awfulness of nuclear war without making it so awful that you changed the channel. And so we sort of put all our eggs in one basket. And I said there was no way to do this without really going whole hog and watching people turn into skeletons.

Hannah McBride: An estimated 100 million people watched this when it aired in 1983, which makes this the most watched TV movie of all time.

Nicholas Meyer: And nobody expected the kind of audience the size that we got. I sure didn't. From my perspective it isn’t a very good movie. And more than that, it was not intended to be a very good movie. If the performances were so memorable we'd say, “Oh my god, Jobeth Williams, amazing! Jason Robards broke your heart.” I thought, no, it can’t be a good movie. It just has to be like a public service announcement. If you have a nuclear war, this is more or less what it's going to be like.

Hannah McBride: Even before it aired, it whipped up quite the frenzy. TV promos cautioned viewers not to watch it alone. ABC distributed this 8-page pamphlet with talking points on nuclear warfare and the fallout. And Ted Koppel even hosted a special segment that aired immediately after the movie, to address the audience’s fears of nuclear war.

Ted Koppel: There is – and you probably need it about now – there is some good news. If you can, take a quick look out the window. It’s all still there. Your neighborhood is still there. So is Kansas City, and Lawrence, and Chicago.

Hannah McBride: They had a panel of experts to discuss the possibility of nuclear war, like scientist Carl Sagan, who coined the term “nuclear winter.”

Carl Sagan: The reality is much worse than what’s been portrayed in this movie, and this new emerging reality has significant policy implications.
Nicholas Meyer: They put George Schultz on the TV – he was Secretary of State – to chill out everybody.
George Schultz: Well the movie certainly dramatizes the unacceptability of nuclear warfare.

Hannah McBride: Then President Ronald Reagan even saw it. The joint chiefs of staff held a screening of the film before it aired on TV and Reagan wrote in his White House diary that the movie The Day After had “greatly depressed” him.

Nicholas Meyer: The second place I heard about it was from Reagan's official biographer, Edmund Morris. He said to me that the only time he saw Ronald Reagan become upset was after they screened The Day After, and he just went into a funk.

Hannah McBride: And not long after that, Reagan held a series of summits with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev about both countries’ nuclear arsenals.

Ronald Reagan: And I told Gorbachev, “Here you and I are, two men in a room, probably the only two men in the world who could bring about World War III. But by the same token, we may be the only two men in the world who could bring about peace.”

Hannah McBride: Those meetings resulted in the INF treaty, where the U.S. and Soviet Union agreed to destroy more than 2,500 missiles.

Hannah McBride: So Nick, the film was successful in influencing the president to destroy at least some of the nuclear weapons on the planet. Do you think it was successful in changing the minds of the people that are in the film – ordinary folks?

Nicholas Meyer: I think what The Day After succeeded in doing – by its very conception, it was so banal. It was a movie of the week, for heaven's sake. It's about people going shopping. It snuck into the back door of the national consciousness in this sort of innocuous way, because it wasn't preaching to the people who were already saying, “Oh my god, this is happening, let's put our head into the oven.” No! It took the people by surprise that it showed them: this, this, this is what's waiting if you don't do something, if you don't take charge, if you don't become involved, if you don't protest.

The Day After is coming out on BluRay later this year. Until then, you can find the film on YouTube.

Hannah McBride is a reporter for 60 dB, a personalized app for short-form audio stories. You can find it in the App Store and Google Play.