The frightening story of the weeks leading up to and following a nuclear strike on the United States. The bulk of the activity centers around the town of Lawrence, Kansas.
Jason Robards ... Dr. Russell Oakes
JoBeth Williams ... Nurse Nancy Bauer
Steve Guttenberg ... Stephen Klein (as Steven Guttenberg)
John Cullum ... Jim Dahlberg
John Lithgow ... Joe Huxley
Bibi Besch ... Eve Dahlberg
Lori Lethin ... Denise Dahlberg
Amy Madigan ... Alison Ransom
Jeff East ... Bruce Gallatin
Georgann Johnson ... Helen Oakes
William Allen Young ... Airman Billy McCoy
Calvin Jung ... Dr. Sam Hachiya
Lin McCarthy ... Dr. Austin
Dennis Lipscomb ... Reverend Walker
I was a naval aviator deployed aboard the USS Ranger (CV-61) when I first saw this film. The show had aired back in the States some time before the film reels (this was before video tape decks were commonplace) were flown out to our Battle Group, so we knew that the telecast had had a big impact on the American public before we had the chance to view it.
That didn't matter. The film had as great, and possibly even more of, an impact on those of us out on the "tip of the spear" as it did on those back home. The military characters seen in the film were not actors -- they were contemporaries of ours, some even familiar faces -- so we felt a true connection to the story. The tension between the US and the Soviet Union was real and nobody knew better than we how nasty things could get in a short period of time. Even as we watched the film over the ship's closed circuit television system, Soviet military units were intent on locating and targeting our Battle Group. Our job, our daily routine, was part of the story, which emphasised the point that we were responsible for keeping the peace and to not allow events to escalate as we all feared could happen.
The reaction I remember most from this film was worry for family back home. -SPOILER- The one airman who left the silo area to reach his family before the missiles arrived displayed a sentiment that we all felt. No one aboard our ship would shirk his duty, but we all understood the sentiment that once duty is done, family is foremost in mind.
The argument could be made that the film was rife with error, but I maintain that it ultimately succeeded in what it was designed to do...make people seriously consider the consequences of nuclear war. That point was not lost on those of us aboard the Ranger at the time. While I watched the film again just recently (21 years after the first viewing), the lesson was still not lost. We may or may not be vulnerable to such a massive strike as what was feared back in the 1980s, but nuclear terror is still a very real possibility. It is as imperative now, as it was then, that we ensure that this type of calamity is never visited upon anyone, especially those about whom we love and care.
Yes, better special effects would make from some jaw-dropping images, but would that improve upon the film's message? In my opinion, no.
I first saw the film as a high school student attending a Department of Defense school in Germany in the early 1980's. The film was shown in school and it scared the bejeeezus out of me and many of my fellow students. We were dealing with Red Army Faction terrorism, car bombs, bomb threats at school and only a few hundred miles from the border to East Germany. The concepts were quite accurate: if the eastern bloc came over the border, then the ONLY NATO response could be to fight a delayed retreat, blowing up roads and bridges as the US and Nato forces were pushed back and most of Germany would have fallen to the Eastern Bloc before any offensive action could have been taken. The scenario leading to the nuclear attacks are quite real and plausible.
The critics say the film was not graphic enough (they prefer things like Threads) or too graphic (prefering more subtile films like Testament ). There is no need to be totally graphic and accurate in portraying the events. Yes, we know it would be worse. But the goal is not to gross everyone out. We want younger audiences to see the film too - and that would never happen with something like theads. Likewise, a mored emotional but action lacking film would not draw in the audiences. The purpose was to 'get the point accross' and I think it did that very successfully - bad acting, flubbed lines, stock footage and all. It showed enough of the circumstances surrounding the events for those who had some education in things could recognize issues and say,"Yes thats right" while not being overly graphic so that only adults could see it.
If you want to see an action movie about nuclear war or you want to see a touchy-feely emotional treatment of the losses due to war - this film is not for you. The purpose of this film is to show what nuclear war may be like (in a very superficial way) and to remind everyone that it must NEVER happen again. Back in the early 1980's with the Soviets under a rotating leadership of old hardliners and the US with Ronny talking smack - the threat was very real and the reality check this film delivers was needed. It doesn't play as well in the year 2002 - but you must remember when a film was made when you see it.
Like many of the viewers here, I watched this movie when it first aired on TV, I was in junior high school. I remember the TV stations and media warning people not to watch it alone, and to not let little kids watch. I remember the little 'discussion groups' about it at school the next day. The main image that was left in my mind was almost everyone being vaporized when the bomb hits, and their skeletons showing through for a moment (especially the couple on their wedding day- that must have been kind of a drag).
I was home from work sick a few months ago, and had nothing to watch. The movie hadn't started too long ago, and I figured what the heck, it would probably be interesting to see how 'dated' it looked, and how it wasn't even remotely scary anymore (especially since I wasn't 14 and impressionable, and one of the least of my worries as an adult is a nuclear war-I remember being scared it would happen on a regular basis for weeks after seeing the movie as a kid). I remember thinking that all the warnings to viewers were just really good publicity stunts by the networks to get people to watch. Maybe it would even be 'campy', right? Ha-ha! No.
I watched the movie with only mild interest at first, but got more and more upset as it went on. This movie has not lost any of its impact, but actually disturbed me much more as an adult. Maybe its because I am now grown up, married, know how short life really is, and have more of a realistic idea about how horrible life would really be 'the day after'. I was actually shocked at how graphic and scary the movie was, especially to have been shown on prime time TV in the early 80's, even when watching in the middle of the day. There's a truly chilling scene when a main character has been in a bomb shelter too long and completely loses it, to bolt outside. She's so far gone that she just twirls around happily, as if she came out and the land they lived on looked exactly the same. Instead, the sky is grey, ash covers every surface, every single bit of plant life is dead, and the family dog and all the livestock lie flyblown and rotting (there is dead silence, expect for the sound of flies surrounding the bodies)...in another scene set in a hospital, there was a huge jump that made me hit the ceiling and left me muttering, "Jesus Christ!" afterwards.
There are other images that I couldn't get out of my head for a long time, such as one of the last scenes where a man visits his ex-girlfriend in some sort of shelter for the radiation victims. They both end up sobbing, and the camera keeps pulling back until you see the other dead and dying people surrounding them number probably closer to the thousands than the 50 or so you thought were in the shelter at the beginning of the scene. It just keeps getting more and more depressing, grim, and scary, until the last incredibly depressing scene, which is made even sadder and more emotional because you see a character obviously insane and dying who you thought might be one of the ones to make it. Afterwards, I think I ended up having to watch "Hairspray" or something equally cheerful to cheer myself up and get my mind off it before I could take a nap.
I always heard how "Threads" made "The Day After" look like an after school special, and had been looking for a copy for a long time (since when I hear that a movie is shocking and upsetting, it usually makes me want to see if it can live up to the buzz). I finally found a store that carries it, but you know what? After getting nightmares after seeing "The Day After" as an adult, I think I'll just pass on "Threads"...
* The Soviet ambassador is named Anatoli Kuragin, the name of a character from Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace".
* The premiere of this TV movie was a major media event. No sponsors bought commercial time after the point in the movie where the nuclear war occurs, so the last half of the show was aired straight through, without commercials.
* ABC set up special 1-800 hotlines to calm people down during and after the original airing.
* Immediately after the film's original broadcast, it was followed by a special news program, featuring a live discussion between scientist Dr. Carl Sagan (who opposed the use of nuclear weapons) and Conservative writer William F. Buckley Jr. (who promoted the concept of "nuclear deterrence"). It was during this heated discussion, aired live on network television, where Dr. Sagan introduced the world to the concept of "nuclear winter" and made his famous analogy, equating the nuclear arms race with "two men standing waist deep in gasoline; one with three matches, the other with five".
* The nuclear missile launch code, sent to the Minuteman silos to fire their missiles at the Soviet Union, was portrayed in the film as "Alpha-7-8-November-Foxtrot-1-5-2-2" with an authentication of "Delta-Xray"
* The film is set mostly in Lawrence, Kansas, which was chosen by the screenwriters as a way to dramatize how nuclear war would affect everyone. During the Cold War, it was theorized that Lawrence, Kansas would be one of the few cities completely unaffected by nuclear war as it is near the exact geographic center of the United States.
* With the full support and encouragement of the city of Lawrence, Kansas, the filmmakers from ABC successfully transformed Lawrence into a nuclear wasteland for a few weeks, knocking out windows in storefronts downtown, placing burnt and overturned cars painted with clouds of black spray throughout the streets, covering the streets and sidewalks with rubble and bricks, and setting up giant "tent cities" and shantytowns down on the banks of the Kansas River, where the teeming homeless set up camp after the attack. Over 2,000 Lawrence residents, including many University of Kansas students, were used as extras, and were paid $50 to shave their heads bald and act as if they were dying of radiation sickness. They were asked not to bathe during the aftermath scenes to add authenticity to the movie.
* Some of the scenes were shot on location in Kansas City, Missouri. During the opening credits, the Kansas City Stockyards, the Truman Sports Complex (with the Chiefs and Royals Stadiums), the Liberty Memorial Monument, the downtown area, and the Country Club Plaza and surrounding neighborhoods and parks can be seen. Scenes of Jason Robards and his daughter talking near the Liberty Memorial, glancing over Crown Center, location shots at the Kansas City Board of Trade, and homes in the Brookside neighborhood can all be seen in the film prior to the attack. Hundreds of civilians can also be seen crowding into a fallout shelter in the basement of the old Fidelity National Bank in downtown Kansas City, just before the bombs drop. At the end of the film, Jason Robards can be seen walking through the rubble of the old St. Joseph Hospital, which was actually being demolished at the time.
* After watching this, president Ronald Reagan sent a pile of suggestions to director Nicholas Meyer how it should be edited.
* Unable to get permission to use U.S. Department of Defense stock footage of mushroom clouds (although able to get stock footage of Minuteman III ICBM test launches), producers were forced to recreate mushroom clouds using special effects.
* The mushroom clouds were created by injecting colored oil plumes into a tank of water (which accounts for the fact that the clouds are dark red, rather than a more realistic hue).
* The US Department of Defense would only co-operate with the film's production on condition that it be made clear in the story that the Soviets, and not the United States, launched their missiles first.
* Although both David Raksin and Virgil Thomson are credited with composing the soundtrack, only Raksin wrote a complete original score for the film. Nicholas Meyer removed much of the Raksin score and inserted cues Thomson had written for the documentary The River (1938) and gave Thomson partial scoring credit.
* In the beginning and ending credits, the song that was played instrumentally was "How Firm a Foundation", a religious hymn about strength to go on in life. That hymn was played at the funerals of Civil War general Robert E. Lee, and American Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt.
* When originally televised, the Presidential speech via radio was delivered by a voice actor who sounded much like Ronald Reagan. This speech was re-voiced by a different actor for the VHS/DVD releases and the version which airs on cable television. Conversely, a startling close-up of a screaming hospital patient was excised from the original ABC telecast, but restored for the home video and cable versions of the film.
* The original air date (on ABC) was November 20, 1983. Over 100 million Americans were estimated to have viewed the program. ). Still rated as the most watched ever TV movie on US television as of April 2006 (not including miniseries), it was watched by 38.55 million households or 46.0% with a Neilsen share of 62%.
* The scenes of Air Force personnel aboard the Airborne Command Post, in the command center receiving news of the incoming attack, the B-52 crew, and the crew in the silo launching their missiles, are footage of actual military personnel during a drill, and had been aired in 1979 in a CBS documentary, "First Strike." In the original footage, the silo is "destroyed" by an incoming "attack" just moments before launching its missiles, which is why the final seconds of the launch countdown are not seen in this movie.
* Several special effects scenes that were planned in the original script were scrapped when the production was cut from 4 hours to 2 1/2 hours. Among the scenes that were scrapped were a birds eye view of the nuclear explosion over Lawrence, Kansas, witnessed from a 737 on approach. A simulated newsreel of tactical nuclear exchanges between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces in Germany was also scrapped.
* The tank that was used to created the "mushroom cloud" was the same tank that used to created the Mutara Nebula effect in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
* One cut scene depicted two groups of students at the University of Kansas fighting each other over remaining food stocks. The first group comprised of student athletes while the second group comprised of science students led by Prof. Huxley.
* The original script had an on camera death scene for Nurse Bower, who asked whether the living really did envy the dead. The scene was cut, however, and Bower died off camera. One of the doctors said meningitis was the cause of her death, however, the sound was so garbled in the first viewing that many viewers could not hear the cause of death at all.
* Director Nicholas Meyer so battled with network censors and the US government over the content, namely the graphic violence, of this film, he quit the production during the editing stages and threatened to petition the DGA to have his name removed from the film. While he did eventually relent and return to the production, he vowed to never work in the medium of television again.