In the age of streaming, the phrase “TV-movie” has been rendered all but meaningless. It now encompasses everything from a Disney Channel musical like “Zombies 2” to “My Dinner with Hervé” to “Mank.” But 30 or 40 years ago, the phrase “TV-movie” meant something specific — a two-hour drama made for one of the big three networks (who were the only game in town), and it also meant a “movie” that had a certain cheesy overexplicit cardboard quality. Not to be a snob about it, but a TV-movie wasn’t cinema; it was…TV. (This was back when pointing that out wasn’t insulting an art form.)
To be sure, there were a small number of great TV-movies, like “Brian’s Song” or Spielberg’s “Duel” or the Sally Field tour de force “Sybil.” But most of the time the form was decidedly declassé. And on Nov. 20, 1983, when ABC aired “The Day After,” its dramatization of a nuclear attack on American soil — a film that dared to show the unshowable, and to pitch it to the widest possible audience — the fundamental experience of the film was tied to the fact that it was a TV-movie. In essence, it was the earnest made-for-network version of a ’70s disaster film, full of thinly sketched characters we would have had zero investment in had it not been for the fact that the banality of their stories ran smack into nuclear Armageddon.
“Television Event” is a documentary about “The Day After.” It looks back on how the film was conceived by the ABC Motion Picture Division president Brandon Stoddard, how it took shape and got made, the battles that were fought on its behalf (many of them with the network’s Standards and Practices division, which was nearly as fuddy-duddy as the Hays Code), the controversies it inspired, and the effect it had on the viewing public. Though “The Day After” took pains to be apolitical (it never showed us how the nuclear war got started, confining itself to the ground’s-eye-view of a group of ordinary citizens in Lawrence, Kan.), conservatives saw it as liberal propaganda: an implicit argument for chopping down American military might.
Yet President Ronald Reagan screened the film at Camp David (he and Nancy were avid movie buffs), and it had an effect on him. In his diary, he wrote that “The Day After” “left me greatly depressed,” and given that Reagan, in his second term, worked with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to put the brakes on the nuclear arms race, “Television Event” suggests, with some justification, that this may have been one instance in which a simple TV-movie nudged an American president in the right direction. (The film must have spoken to him more than Prince’s “Ronnie, Talk to Russia.”) The documentary presents “The Day After” as a primal piece of popular culture that gave the entire nation a badly needed wake-up call.
And that’s certainly one way to look at it. A hundred million people saw “The Day After” (it’s almost impossible to imagine that kind of unified television audience today), and many were shaken by it, because how could you not be? The film’s defining sequence, in which a mushroom cloud rises up over the Kansas wilderness and people get singed into X-rays (the movie’s way of depicting the fact that they’re being vaporized), exerted a primal shock and awe. “Television Event” hails “The Day After” as the rare case of a TV network not just pushing the envelope but bursting it, making the rare TV-movie that shook people to their souls.
Except that the messengers, in this case, have a vested interest in making that claim. “Television Event” is 90 minutes long, and its first hour consists entirely of the recollections of the people who made “The Day After”: Brandon Stoddard (who died in 2014), the director Nicholas Meyer, the screenwriter Edward Hume, the producer Stephanie Austin, the actress Ellen Anthony (who played the pigtailed farm girl Joleen), and so on. Their stories are entertaining, but the premise of almost every comment is, “Here’s how we brought off this remarkable feat,” and that turns much of the documentary into the kind of wide-eyed “Making of ‘The Day After'” featurette you’d expect to see as a DVD extra.
The problem isn’t what’s there. Stoddard, Meyer, and the rest are vivid inside storytellers, and there’s a juiciness to hearing about how Meyer, who had just completed filming on “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” became like Orson Welles in the land of small-screen hacks, fighting for every scene, making himself “difficult,” getting fired, writing an impassioned memo after he saw the cut that the network put together, and finally rejoining the project. The issue with “Television Event,” though, is what’s not there: a shred of commentary that isn’t pimping for the movie, that might provide a larger cultural context for it or even (God forbid) look a bit askance at what “The Day After” “achieved.”
From my own memories of that Sunday night in 1983, “The Day After” wasn’t a particularly good movie. It was all about the build-up to the nuclear attack, and when that occurred, it was certainly unlike anything you’d ever seen on network television before. But “The Day After,” as its title suggests, was at heart a film about the aftermath of the bomb dropping — and this came down to a lot of actors in blood and bandages, with melting skin, skulking past grimy battered post-apocalyptic sets. It’s not like it was all that convincing. (If it had been made by, say, the Steven Soderbergh of “Contagion,” it would have been five times as unsettling.) The film was kind of a drag — which I suppose, on some level, was the idea. But even art about catastrophe shouldn’t drag you down.
Brandon Stoddard shepherded “The Day After” with a devotion that never wavered, and his directive from the outset was, “Make it as realistic as possible.” But in 1983, there were limits to the vision of a television executive whose job came down to one thing: piling up eyeballs. As Stoddard watched the dailies, his first comment was, “Too dark.” In other words, what Meyer had shot didn’t have the showroom lighting of a TV-movie. Yet that one early note is profoundly revealing, since the lighting of TV-movies was always half the problem with them. They were lit up like commercials; the lighting annihilated any mystery. (That’s why TV-movies weren’t cinema.)
“Television Event” remembers the early ’80s as a time of abundant fear about the prospect of nuclear war, and abundant innocence, too. But I would argue that the era wasn’t nearly as naïve as all that. The film’s director, Jeff Daniels, was five years old when his extended family gathered to watch “The Day After.” They put him to bed before the nuclear-attack sequence, but he remembers being freaked out by the previous month’s worth of doomsday publicity. Yet for those of us who didn’t happen to be in kindergarten at the time, this wasn’t exactly the age of fallout shelters and “duck and cover.” If “The Day After” was a wake-up call, the grand irony of that statement is that it’s only because too many Americans had already had their brains melted down by too much bad TV.
That applies to Reagan as well. That “The Day After” may actually have influenced his nuclear policy represents not so much an artistic triumph as a moral shock: 40 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 20 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, it took this movie to convince the President of the United States that it might be smart to tone down his saber-rattling and try to avoid a nuclear war instead of treating the prospect of one as a winnable cowboy showdown? If “Television Event” reveals anything, it’s that Reagan, in his life’s-a-movie way, was already paving the way for Donald Trump — for the era when entertainment would nuke reality.