I remember watching this one when I was a kid probably a year or two after the Soviet Union fell, so it’s been about 20 years. Several scenes from this film really stuck with me over the years and it’s one that every now and then I would think about and make a point to dig up (and then forget). Thanks to YouTube, there’s all kinds of gems like this right at our fingertips that might have been lost to history.
The Day After came out in the early 80’s, which was a fairly tense period of the Cold War. The US and the Soviet Union reached a period of relaxed relations known as detente during the 70’s, which was shattered by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. It would be a few more years before the periods of perestroika and glasnot that ultimately saw the communist regime collapse. In Wolverines: Reflections on Red DawnI describe the social and geopolitical situation of that period, as Red Dawn came out shortly after The Day After.
The plot follows the stories of a few different characters in and around the Kansas City area. There’s the Dahlbergs, a farm family that lives near nuclear missile silos, Robert Oakes, a doctor from Kansas City and Airman First Class Billy McCoy, an enlisted man in the Air Force that works with nuclear missiles as well as a few other minor characters. The first half of the film establishes the characters while allowing the situation between NATO and the USSR to develop, the middle of the film has the actual nuclear attack and the last part of the film covers the aftermath. The premise for the war is basically the same as the Berlin blockade of 1948, but in this case it ends up in a brief ground war with tactical nuclear missile strikes in Europe followed by full scale nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. The film gives a fairly realistic portrayal of how nuclear war would affect the survivors.
There are some good themes in the film. I think the most prominent one is “normalcy bias”. Many people refused to believe that something bad could happen. In one scene the mother of the Dahlberg family continued to bake to prepare for her daughter’s wedding which was supposed to take place the next day and make the beds, despite the imminent warnings that the missiles were coming and her husband demanding that she get into the basement. In another scene Robert Oakes and his wife scoff at the neighbors for deciding that now was a good time to take a vacation in Guadalajara (aka “bugging out) due to the crisis in Europe. Sounds like the neighbors made the right choice. During the montage of the US launching her missiles, there’s one surreal clip of the missiles going off in the background as a football game takes place at Arrowhead Stadium. In another scene, Airman McCoy is called on to duty and forced to cancel his leave despite travel arrangements he made with his wife. She doesn’t understand the severity of the situation and takes it out on him, making it all the more difficult for McCoy.
There’s one line in the movie where a doctor with a foreign accent (presumably portraying a WWII refugee) talks with Dr. Oakes and mentions that people were leaving Kansas City. He says “where does one go from Kansas City?”, implying that if you’re not safe in the more-or-less geographical center of the United States, where are you safe? This was one uncomfortable reality of the Cold War. As a nation, we were fortunate to have avoided the widespread death and destruction that happened in Europe and Asia during the 20th Century. Had World War III panned out like it did in The Day After, we would not have been as fortunate and everybody would be affected.
Another theme in the film is the idea that an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure in the case of nuclear war. The director conveys his sentiments that we’re better off trying to reduce the possibility of nuclear war rather than preparing to deal with the consequences. The director doesn’t seem too optimistic about the ability to effectively get things back to normal in the aftermath of a nuclear war and based on what I know, I’d have to agree. There’s one great scene where a group of survivors are huddled around a radio listening to the President address the nation. In the speech the president assures the American people that rebuilding is underway and praises the American people for their resolve, noting that the Soviet Union suffered similar damage and that the US didn’t surrender. The people are extremely apathetic and cynical towards the President’s words, given the futile situation they’re in.
There’s another great scene where a group of farmers meet with a local official who explains the government’s new agricultural program with advice on how to deal with contaminated soil. The farmers are advised to scrape off the top 6 inches of soil and start anew. One farmer in the group calls bullshit on the government’s info and asks how they’re supposed to pull that off when they have 200 acres of cropland. I think this is not just an example of an inept government, but one that really can’t come to the rescue in some situations but at the same time can’t say “in the event of nuclear war, you’re fucked. Sorry.” In another scene someone says something to the extent of “when they come to help us…” to which another character asks “when who comes from where?”, bringing up the true gravity of the situation.
One thing I liked about the movie is that it didn’t have some magical twist where someone saves the day and everything is right with the world. I think a lot of thought and research went into the production of the film and the adage that “the people that died were the lucky ones” is probably true in the event of nuclear war. Naturally the film had a strong disarmament slant to it and wanted to convey to the American public an image of what nuclear war would actually look like to us. I just read the Wiki article and I didn’t realize how controversial the movie actually was (but then again, I was 2 when it came out). Apparently it caused a lot of psychological distress to a lot of people and even Mr. Rodgers had to do a few shows on the subject to help children cope with it. It forced the American public to really think about these issues and talk about them. Many people viewed it as defeatist and anti-American as well, completely missing the point.
Unfortunately I think this movie has been largely written off and/or forgotten as a relic of the Cold War, despite the fact it’s a great doomsday/apocalyptic/dystopian/SHTF/TEOTWAWKI film. I think the first reaction is to say it’s irrelevant now that the Cold War is over, but I think that could be debated. China has a nuclear arsenal capable of launching a full-scale attack on the US and all the end of the Cold War did with Russia is put them in a slightly weaker position, although they still have a nuclear arsenal and aren’t too friendly with us. Then there’s the “rogue states” and more importantly, non-state actors (i.e. terrorists) who are capable of pulling off some small-scale attacks. I think there was really something to the idea that mutually assured destruction helped keep the peace, whereas there’s not the same dynamic with a terrorist group. Either way, some kind of nuclear incident isn’t completely out of the question. We’ve pissed a lot of people off in the world and honestly, some of the people we’ve pissed off are the kind of assholes who would do something like that. I would say that the kind of full-scale attack as seen in this film is a lot less likely today than it was then.
I’d also like to give the movie some credit for not being over dramatic or having many failed attempts at some deep, profound lines (which is a flaw of Red Dawn). The acting is pretty agreeable. At any rate, I think this Cold War gem deserves revisiting from people who are into this genre.