Made at a time when the Cold War was still part of everyday life, this film supposes a real nuclear conflict between the Western powers, and the Soviet Union. The entire first half deals with the introduction of various characters, whose fate we will follow throughout. Set in Kansas, USA, it shows us a slice of everyday life in the cities of Lawrence and Kansas City, as well as the surrounding agricultural countryside. We are also made aware that the area is home to Air Force bases, including the storage of lots of nuclear missiles in underground bunkers close to many homes.
The tension in Europe is well done, as families read newspapers and watch TV News broadcasts, relating events following the East German seizure of West Berlin. Strategic Air Command is on alert, and down in the missile silos, the air force personnel go through their drills. As real combat breaks out in Germany, Soviet troops flood into the western half of that country, and the NATO allies issue an ultimatum, which goes unheeded. Next, we hear reports of a ‘limited’ nuclear attack against Soviet army units, and the government begins to broadcast dire warnings, and advice to the people about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack on the USA.
The different characters receive this news in various ways. Some go into denial, believing it will never happen, others begin to stockpile food, and move emergency supplies into the cellar. One starts to hitch-hike home to be with his parents, and another leaves his job at the underground missile base in the hope of finding his wife and child. Then one morning, people see missiles launching from the tubes nearby. Everyday life stands still, as they watch the dozens of huge rockets heading skyward. The unthinkable has happened, and an all-out nuclear war is taking place. Thirty minutes later, the Soviet missiles arrive on the mainland of America.
Given the age of this film, you can forgive the rather ‘obvious’ special effects. That said, the air-burst detonation of two missiles over the cities in Kansas is exceptionally well done, and the immediate results of the flash and blast are suitably disturbing. But the film is called The Day After, and the second half begins with the aftermath of the strikes. It then follows the post-apocalyptic scenarios we have all seen in many other films since. Dead animals, ash raining down, and widespread destruction. Ruined buildings and vehicles, people frantic to escape, and others wandering around badly injured, or dying. Radiation sickness takes hold fast. There is no power, little water, and the infrastructure of society has ceased to exist.
Our characters are picked up soon after, and we follow each in turn. Some trying to survive locked in the basement of their farm, one doctor returning to what is left of his hospital, to help where he can, and others wandering aimlessly on roads clogged with bewildered survivors. Law and order breaks down, people fight over food and water, and the remaining authorities are unable to offer any relief or constructive advice. One of the best things about this film is that it doesn’t sugar-coat the reality of a modern nuclear war. Whilst some of the scenes are undoubtedly sentimental, and betray the ‘made for TV’ roots, there is no magic wand, no flag waving, and little hope in sight.
The cast do their best with a gloomy script, and obviously distressing scenes. Jason Robards is the kindly doctor, Steve Guttenberg the young hitch-hiker and JoBeth Williams features as a hard-working nurse. Other famous names include John Lithgow and Amy Madigan, and even the smallest parts feature familiar faces. They don’t make films like this anymore, though you may be familiar with ‘Threads’, made the following year in Britain, as well as much earlier examples like ‘The War Game’, and ‘Fail Safe’. Since the collapse of The Soviet Union, film-makers have turned to terrorism for disaster epics, but recent events make me think that a modern film with this theme is long overdue.
The world could do with another warning.