Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Day After (1983, Nicholas Meyer)

I've always found history to be fascinating. If you ever took a history class with me, you'd remember me as the kid with all the answers. I read quite a lot and I've been guilty of processing, in the words of many of my peers throughout the years, a bunch of 'useless information.' But I'm one of those people who finds any information interesting. I took to my history classes the way an alcoholic takes to good lager. I read my textbooks from cover to cover. Much of my learning however, was achieved on my own. This is not to say that the lessons my teachers devised did not interest me, for they most certainly did. But I have seen too many students walk out of their classes at the end of the year with the intention to dispose of information with the ritual brain wipe our minds go through once we enter the summer months. Thus, I've found it in me to ascertain that our teachers failed to make history a reality to those of us separated by, in some cases, hundreds or thousands or millions of years, years marked by continued social and technological advancement that has rendered the years before our birth all the more obsolete.

You would think that in a world with the internet at our disposal that many of us would use it as the enormous source of information that it is. The sad fact is that many people don't. But even if you do use the internet for its original intention, then you must know that the facts in front of us, closer than they've ever been thanks to just a single click of a mouse, are far more detached from the inquisitive mind than they would be in the company of a vibrant and thoughtful instructor. That is a reality--and it is an often pondered over thought in relation to our general education. But our reality is just as much a reality as the life that was lead before any of us left the womb. This is a fact that is often glided over in history lessons, when the course of action is simply to commit certain dates and names to memory only to be tested on them at the end of the week and again on final examinations, where afterwards these dates will be disposed of forever, never to heard from again. As a result, we grow up in a world where we aren't unified by education. The idea that there is nowhere to look but forward renders selfishness our detriment--and we've all heard that old adage: Those who don't know their history are doomed to forever repeat past mistakes. But we don't know just how damaging these mistakes can be without a prior point of reference, which is why a film like Meyer's The Day After is so significant.

The Day After is interested in providing a human voice to very real fears. Though nuclear war is not the threat now that it was in the 1980s, the film suceeds in providing a very unflinching look at the apocalypse. There are people out there who would love to misrepresent the facts: they claim that such a film was made only to mislead you, to frighten you, to disturb you, to urge you to start running for the hills with your family and as many supplies as you can carry. But The Day After, as shocking as it may be, was made with the intention to educate us all on the very true horrors that we as a society would face if ever we find ourselves unlucky enough to live within the range of nuclear fallout. Watching a film like this only cements my belief that education has never and will never be our enemy. Ignorance will never be bliss--Meyer would be pleased to hear that after viewing this film (indeed, living in the shadow of its very powerful scope), I made it my business to read up on what I've heard referred to as 'nuclear theory.' What we can expect from an atomic bomb has been scientifically documented but, as usual, human reactions are--and will always be--purely hypothetical. Sure, we can expect people who once had their heads screwed on tight to lose it, to panic; we can expect people to kill themselves to escape the wicked throes of radiation sickness; we can expect doctors and nurses to slave against the clock that's ticking with their blood included on its sinister hands. But we can never properly gauge the survival instinct--in circumstances such as these, shit, as they say, happens. But that the film makes its business in providing human testimony to what could have very easily been turned to yet another blasé documentation is what has helped to make it such a memorable experience.

Just how horrifying was the experience? Well, you'd just have to ask the countless men and women who tuned in and watched the film during its initial broadcast. Over 100 million people watched, making the film the hit of the season. Its effect on the populace proved even more interesting than the material onscreen. ABC and local affiliates were prompted to open 1-800 hotlines for anyone in need of counseling in their state of distress. President Reagan even tried to suggest cuts in the 'interest of the American public.' (Thankfully, that never went through.) Thankfully though, Meyer's message of very real human consequences prompted national debate. Nuclear proliferation vs. nuclear deterrence became the talk of the decade. News stories branded Meyer a visionary while still others branded him a traitor.

And yet, as committed to realism as the film is, critics had a very divided way of looking at it. Some claimed that it went too far and accused the filmmaker of sensationalising nuclear war while others claimed that the film didn't go all that far AT ALL. To this I say: Are they stark raving mad? While The Day After is rivaled pretty majestically by Mick Jackson's equally as visceral Threads, it is the film that visited those who grew up in the midst of the Cold War in their nightmares. In all my time online, I have rarely seen reactions as horrific as the ones I've read in regards to this film (or Threads) for that matter. Thanks to the internet, I've encountered men and women who to this day have visions of a nuclear holocaust. I've encountered men and women who to this day still feel that ever nagging fear of seeing everything they've experienced reduced to ashes. And I've even encountered men and women who to this day refuse to watch the film ever again. This proves to me that the threat of nuclear war is a much more frightening threat to most people than the, let's say, ghosts of the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick's The Shining because of the all too real fears human error can provoke, fears that we have actually seen come to life, giving them a far more disturbing power than ghosts, ghouls and goblins can ever provide. This is more than just imagination.

I look back on images now: There's the fallout itself, photographed with all the disturbing conviction the camera could provide. Human beings are reduced to ashes - we see their skeletons flicker brightly beneath their skin before they are gone. A bride and a groom can't even enjoy marking the beginning of their marital bliss before they too are wiped out. Husbands and wives panic, grasping their children tighter than they ever have--or ever will again--as windows shatter, their furniture bangs and clatters against other belongings and personal mementos in the ruckus and their homes are ripped from their foundations. Doctors and nurses in neighbouring Kansas City scream and duck for cover as their patients pray with all their hearts to escape a death far worse than the sickness already creeping into their tired bones. And university students walk through the rubble afterwards as if in a dream. I could congratulate the talents of the many actors who made this script truly come to life, among them the late Jason Robards, John Lithgow, Steve Guttenberg, Amy Madigan and JoBeth Williams. But I'm sure they're aware of their commitment: it's evident here, clear as day. A boyfriend and girlfriend sob in the middle of a room of dying patients as the man reveals all the hair he's losing thanks to his radiation sickness, putting him in good company with the young woman, who has practically none already; another main character runs outside after being cooped up in a bomb shelter, dancing giddily, so far gone, oblivious to the grey sky, ash covering everything and all signs of plant life dead.

As dreadful as this all sounds, the fact that The Day After can continue to conjure up feelings of human empathy mixed in with the horror and sadness you'd expect from such a sight is a testament to its effectiveness. I am reminded now of all that I've read up on, in particular the angry accusations that followed Nicholas Meyer. That the film never specifies whether the Soviets or the Americans dropped the bomb made Meyer the target of much vitriol. He was called 'un-American' among other things. The film however, doesn't take sides. It isn't interested in being a political platform--its only purpose is to show, to educate, to remind. That doubts as to Meyer's nationalism could even make their way to the forefront of the debate surrounding this film astounds me. Politics are not the big picture. The big picture here is human error. The big picture here is man-created terror that can destroy the lives of innocents at the drop of a hat. The big picture here is cold, hard truth, which requires a strong understanding of human history--for The Day After is still a lesson in progress. It is very much a call for unity. It is very much a call for peace. But it is, most of all, very much a call for knowledge and insight, a lesson that I, an only recent resident of Lawrence, Kansas, where much of the film takes place, have taken in readily, agreeably and with plenty of gratitude.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing a review that puts the emphasis on what Nicholas Meyer was trying to accomplish with this miniseries.

    This movie wasn't about getting people to vote for somebody or something like that.

    It was about what the reporter was heard sobbing over the radio waves when the Hindenberg crashed: "Oh the humanity!!!"

    There is a very dear human, critter, and landscape price to be paid when war happens--and we'd better ask ourselves if it's really worth it before putting the wheels of war into motion!!!