Just over forty years ago, on November 20th, 1983, ABC aired the most influential TV movie ever made. The Day After, which starred Jason Robards, John Lithgow, JoBeth Williams and Steve Guttenberg, was a riveting dramatization of the aftermath of a nuclear war, focusing on the residents of a small town dealing with the most terrifying outcome of all – surviving. Along with other movies of the era, such as Testament and the UK’s Threads, it was seen as a cry for disarmament, as no one could ever possibly “win” a nuclear war.
This week, PBS is airing a documentary on the film called Television Event, and in it, they put forward the notion that the movie may have helped prevent a nuclear war. In it, director Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) relates the following intriguing anecdote (excerpted by THR):
“The movie may have indeed helped prevent a nuclear war. It certainly changed one person’s mind on the subject, and that person just happened to be the President of the United States. Ronald Reagan wrote about watching the movie in his memoir. His biographer, who spent three years in the White House, said the only time he ever saw Reagan flip out was after seeing the movie. Ultimately, it sent Reagan into such a tailspin, he signed the Intermediate Missile Range Treaty, the only treaty that ever resulted in the physical dismantling of nuclear weapons.”
It’s hard to do justice to just how influential this TV movie was in 1983. It was watched by 100 million people, a staggering number that’s impossible to fathom nowadays. There’s a great episode of The Americans when the two main Soviet spies, played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, happen to watch it and become thoroughly depressed about their line of work. Their handlers happen to watch the show too, and in later seasons, it’s one of the reasons why all involved become supporters of Glasnost, the thawing of relations between Russia and the West.
It’s a movie that’s certainly relevant now, especially in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer being such a smash. If you want to check it out, it’s another movie that is only available on physical media. However, YouTube has a few versions of it streaming right now, along with a chilling after-show featuring a debate between Carl Sagan, William F. Buckley, the now-dead Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, and more.
Did any of you watch the Day After when it originally aired?