Growing up in the 80s, we were constantly threatened with nuclear annihilation. It makes it hard to be frightened of any of today's bugaboos.
Whatever happened to nuclear war?
Weren't we promised one, back when I was a kid? Back then, it seemed like every time you turned on the television set, they were talking about the chances of nuclear war with the Soviets. It was all over television, on the news, the soap operas, even on the sit coms- I remember Silver Spoons having a very special episode on the nuclear threat. We learned about nuclear war in school. Sting had a hit song constantly playing on MTV asking if the Russians loved their children enough to avoid nuking them, or us, or him. To be honest, I'm personally pretty ambivalent about the idea of Sting getting nuked.
But, it never happened. The Soviet Union collapsed when I was in High School and, after having gone through my childhood hearing about the great possibility that we'd be nuked, suddenly the danger had passed. What a total waste of time. Then we went through the early 90s hearing about the great possibility of world peace, now that the threat had passed. Again, I think we got ripped off. Now, we're promised that, if we don't band together and eat all of our carrots, the 'Islamofascists' will topple the West. Oh, please.
In 1983, when I was nine years old, there was a television movie called The Day After that aired on ABC. It was directed by Nicholas Meyer, who also directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and starred Jason Robarts and Steve Guttenberg. The movie took place in some small town in Kansas; during the first half we get to know a number of the residents, and during the second half, the town gets nuked and they all die of radiation poisoning. There was, understandably, no laugh track for this show.
The Day After was watched by more people than any other television program in the 80s- something like half of all adults watched it. We watched it too, although I don't remember being particularly frightened by it. Lots of people were scared out of their wits, including Ronald Reagan, thankfully enough. I recently rented it on DVD, and I can see why people were frightened by it. It was a pretty bleak film.
It was also a very controversial film. Republicans complained that the film was biased because it didn't give the pro-nuclear war side of the argument. This is perhaps the stupidest political argument made in the 80s, although the argument that a number of Republicans made that Maya Lin was a ''traitor'' due to her design for the Vietnam Memorial Wall is probably a close second. ABC aired a debate about the movie and nuclear war, in which William F. Buckley argued for the deterrence of Mutually Assured Destruction against Carl Sagan, who wanted to do away with nuclear weapons altogether. Ben Stein wrote an editorial in which he called for the networks to film a miniseries about the United States living under Soviet rule, which they did with the miniseries Amerika.
Nowadays, I don't think any of my students would recognize terms like Mutually Assured Destruction, and I doubt that I could explain the ideas behind them anyway. Thankfully, the idea of nuclear deterrence has become as outdated as the idea of a miniseries. Watching the movie now, I'm amazed at how traditional it feels. The first half looks like it should be starring Jimmy Stewart- It's a Wonderful Half-Life. The camera soars over fields of wheat, the strings are gorgeous, and the people are all loving Americans with trivial problems. The filming style is nearly invisible. Meyer does a good job of involving the audience in the characters' stories.
In the background of all this is a stand off between the United States and the Soviet Union over a fictional Soviet invasion of West Germany. We hear reports on radios and televisions, but the film takes a docudrama approach, so this is always in the background. It's amazing to see the 80s and remember how few public places had monolithic television sets in them. Now, libraries have them, and they always seem to be turned to CNN. If we were nuked now, we'd be sick of hearing about the nuclear war before it even happened. But the characters in The Day After live in that golden era before total information awareness. That is, until the half-way point, in which Kansas gets blown off the map.
The nuclear war looks a bit cheesy today- there's a lot of stock footage and explosions superimposed over photographs. You can watch it here. Incredibly enough, the military wouldn't allow ABC to use any footage of an actual nuclear explosion, so the blast is actually dye injected into a vat of oil, and shot upside down. It actually works fairly well.
The last half of the movie takes place after the bomb, as the survivors struggle to survive in the rubble of nuclear annihilation. Watching it now, I was impressed by how straightforward this section is. There's not a lot of cheap sentimentalism or canned inspirational scenes. Also, it's fairly realistic, all things considered. We can assume that all of the main characters die. Steve Guttenberg looks like shit by the end.
When I went to school the next day (the day after The Day After), several of my classmates were traumatized. Some were crying, others looked shell-shocked; my idiot friends and I thought it was awesome. We had watched a lot of post-apocalyptic action movies like The Road Warrior, so we were expecting that we'd survive the nuclear war and get to fight off mutants with nun-chucks or something. We really went through the 80s yearning for nuclear war and the adventures that would come with it. Someday I'm going to write a novel about this weird childhood.
The Day After is still an effective movie today, although it should be noted that the BBC docudrama Threads- which can be watched in its entirety here- is considerably more harrowing. The movie Testament also came out in 1983, and is similarly terrifying. All of these movies had the effect of making people terrified of nuclear war, including the President. Again, I wasn't afraid, but I lack the apocalyptic imagination.
A decade or so later the Soviet bloc collapsed and the nuclear threat passed with it. Movies like The Day After, Threads, or Testament became 'retro', thank god. Sadly, though, you don't hear a lot of country and western songs about nuclear war these days. People today are afraid of terrorists and the 'Islamic bomb', but what they're afraid of just can't compare to the nuclear holocaust. Somehow, having the largest nation on earth pointing hundreds of nuclear warheads at you, and vice-versa, and the leaders of both sides seeming totally ready to launch them, is a little bit worse than having twenty guys in a cave in Pakistan who want to kill us.
The worst thing we have to worry about now is whether or not Iran has the nuke, although we know damn well they don't, and if they might get the nuke, which we're pretty sure they won't. We're also told that it's actually worse now because the 'Islamicists' want to die, although we were told that the Russians wanted to die too. Excuse my lack of concern. Again, I lack the apocalyptic imagination. The lesson to be learned from The Day After, aside from that nukes are bad, is that worrying about apocalyptic death is a denial of life. It's a waste of time. Life has to be lived in hope for the future, not in fear of it. It's hard to tell just what the paranoid style of American politics actually creates, aside from very effective fiction.