A lot of negative ink has been given over the years to "The Day After". People say it is either too harsh, or too soft. People say it is too "sentimental" and is just a soap opera hiding behind a disaster film front. They say it is "unrealistic".
While everyone is entitled to their opinion, I frankly feel that the vast majority of such comments are unfair. This film's producers, especially director Nicholas Meyer, were attempting to show something that had really never been shown before: an honest, realistic depiction of an actual nuclear attack, presenting both the immediate horror of the moment of impact, and also the devastating aftermath, as the survivors try to live normal lives that can never again exist. Before this film, most references to nuclear war in popular film was limited to how such a war would create mutant monsters.
I feel strongly that "The Day After" succeeds in the two goals of the producers described above. The "ground zero" scenes are unforgettable. I am reminded of the first time I saw the film. During its initial airing in 1983, I was not allowed to watch it (I was only 7 at the time), though I did get to see it when it was re-aired in 1988. I was not fully aware of what really happened in nuclear warfare; I just thought that the bomb produced a hell of an explosion, and that was it. Needless to say, I was shocked to see people being incinerated in the blink of an eye, and being consumed by rolling walls of flame. Trust me, once you see these scenes you will NEVER forget them. And as for one of the chief criticisms of the film - that some of the "bomb footage" is actually taken from 1950's government films of nuclear tests, well, what do you expect? Nuclear holocausts are not an everyday occurrence. Granted, an even better depiction of nuclear destruction is seen in "Terminator 2", but "The Day After" was made for TV almost a full decade before "T2", and had neither that film's technology nor budget. And the notion that these scenes do not show enough is to me simply ridiculous. I saw MORE than enough in this film to convince me that nuclear war is the worst invention man ever came up with.
Furthermore, the aftermath depicted in the film also gets the point across. Life after such a disaster would not be worth living. As in Stephen King's "The Stand", the persons killed in the disaster are the lucky ones, not the survivors. Those who live through the explosion try to keep life going, but they soon either succumb to radiation sickness, or, as depicted by the farmers trying to figure out how to grow crops in hopelessly contaminated soil, realize that life will be limited to however long you can live on canned food.
One final note I wish to respond to is the criticism that the film is like a "disease-of-the-week" film, because it centers around regular-joe characters. Those who make comments like these are missing the point. The filmmakers were trying to say that, while it is the politicians and military leaders who call the shots, it is the regular people who will suffer the consequences of their governments' decisions. Take the scene where the President gives a radio address. The President, who is at least partially responsible for this mess, is safe, secure and comfortable in a bunker somewhere; the lowly commoners he was supposed to "protect" listen to him speak in a shattered land, their lives, their property, everything around them eternally ruined. Anyone who wishes to see anything crueller than this must be sadist in my opinion.
That said, the film is not perfect, either. It tries to present too many characters and thus carries too many subplots. Also, while it is understandable that the story should be set up before the bomb drops, the film takes a bit too long to get going.
In closing, "The Day After" has a message. Some people may not agree with the message, others (like myself) think it is one of the most important messages that can be sent in a world where none of us seem able to get along with our fellow man. View the film for yourself and see what you think.
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