“The American people are turning sullen. They’ve been clobbered on all sides by Vietnam, Watergate, the inflation, the depression; they’ve turned off, shot up, and they’ve fucked themselves limp, and nothing helps. So, this concept analysis report concludes, ‘The American people want somebody to articulate their rage for them.'”
— Diana Christensen (as written by Paddy Chayefsky) in “Network” (1976)
“Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path”
— As Tweeted by Donald Trump, “President” of the United States (2017)
“It seems fitting to begin with the end.”
That’s how journalist Harry F. Waters’s cover story on “The Day After” for Newsweek began. I’ll never forget reading that piece, nor that opening line. The publicity machine over at the ABC network had been working overtime. TV Guide featured its own cover story and countless news reports added further momentum, worrying that the highly publicized telefilm’s depiction of the aftermath of a nuclear war on midwestern Americans would be too graphic and devastating for audiences, especially children. Others declared it was merely a leftist polemic for ratings. Yet, ABC did detonate one of the most watched television events ever with “The Day After,” a three-hour telefilm that answered of the ultimate “What if?” question. And more than 100 million people in 39 million homes tuned in one November night in 1983 to find out the answer.
Directed by Nicholas Meyer and featuring an ensemble led by such era heavyweights as Jason Robards, John Lithgow, JoBeth Williams, Amy Madigan & John Cullum, “The Day After” was actually conceived as a two-part event. In the end, audiences would witness a three-hour film chronicling the lives of several Kansas families as they deal with the horrific aftermath of a nuclear exchange.
Whatever its technical limitations, the irradiated images of blast vaporization, flash burns, radiation sickness and the futility of restoring even the most basic of societal structures burned into the consciousness of a generation. President Ronald Reagan, who viewed the film prior to its airing, credits the experience as being the reason why he reversed his stance on certain nuclear arms policies. (Reagan wrote in his diaries how the film was “very effective” and left him “greatly depressed.”)
Broadcasting a political statement as “entertainment” into the nation’s living rooms remains its hallmark. It was polarizing, but we had to watch, my family included. I recall how we sat in the den, my Dad, my sisters, and I. Mom or my younger brother weren’t present. Maybe, maybe not? What I do recall was sitting on the floor, leaning against the sofa and whispering, “Here we go” as the movie began. And our collective nuclear fears hit an unforgettable peak for the rest of the decade.
And we are still here.
In the 34 years since “The Day After,” we’ve seen and heard elected officials, dictators, religious zealots, grandstanding fringe media show hosts and a rogue’s gallery of other malcontents wax lyrical about warmongering. Then America elected Donald Trump.
Flannel shirts. Will & Grace. Roseanne. David Letterman. Fiorucci. Nuclear war! Sooner or later, everything comes back in vogue. Even the end of the world. Or maybe that prospect has never left us?
To those who know me, I am obsessed with apocalyptic fiction. I don’t know where it began, but movies, novels, mini-series, I loved the idea of “the end.” Hell, I even read the endings of books and hit Wikipedia to see how other narratives end. Haha. So, “When Harry Met Sally,” yo. I still joke that such eccentricities were preparing me for the inevitable. I’ve written about this before, stating that I watch films like “The Day After,” “Threads,” and “Special Bulletin” because no matter what we go through today, it still isn’t a nuclear wasteland.
I guess the jokes on us? Maybe?
Seriously, Trump is the quintessential rebound boyfriend, the one that is a huge swing away from the one who treated you well, but you broke up with anyway. He’s that loud mouthed douche who talks a lot of shit but can’t back any of it up. He’s the surprise date your friend brings to dinner and you all wonder, “The sex can’t be THAT good. Why is he with him?” At best, he’ll leave you with a case of crabs, but that can be treated. At worst, he’ll leave you with a scorching case of the uncurable herp. And let’s face it, America, you can’t afford to be left with another social disease transmitted through “fake news” or abject hatred. Bad enough we don’t have the healthcare reform to treat it.
For those of you who lived through the Reagan era, the idea of witnessing a nuclear war was solid enough to kick start the low sweat stage in us all. Yet, how lucky to know we survived to see Trump engage in social media saber (i.e. penis) rattling. Now, I ponder whether “the end” as entertainment is no longer just a scary scenario. Can it manifest itself this time? And what does that mean for us all? It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I don’t feel fine after all.
At times, I wonder if we are better of being dust in the atmosphere, given what we’ve done to ourselves and our planet. Then again, I’m not ready for “The End.” I refuse to give up on my right to dream of a good boy or girlfriend, the one who makes us all think and laugh at the dinner table, the one who believes in justice for all. Let all the haters ride the bomb to oblivion. We can’t allow for stupidity to have its way again.