Next year marks the 30th anniversary of ABC's broadcast of The Day After, Nicholas Meyer's film about how middle America copes, or doesn't, with a nuclear attack. An estimated 100 million viewers saw the highly controversial film, which was followed by a discussion, hosted by Ted Koppel, about the merits of a nuclear freeze as opposed to nuclear deterrence.
I was only six years old when The Day After was originally broadcast, and I barely remember the national controversy surrounding the film. However, I recently had a chance to watch it and -- pun not intended -- I was blown away. The Day After deserves to be considered the greatest horror film of all-time, without a flaw or defect in its script or direction; the performances by Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, John Lithgow and Amy Madigan, among others, were uniformly outstanding. Even three decades later -- even after the conclusion of the Cold War -- the film has lost none of its emotional impact.
I can't say I was surprised to learn that the conservative movement hated The Day After; William F. Buckley Jr., Ben Stein, Rev. Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly alleged that the film was little more than ABC's shout-out to the nuclear-freeze movement, with Buckley and Stein specifically suggesting that ABC produce a film about what would happen if the Soviets ever gained dominion over America. (These suggestions reportedly prompted ABC to produce the 1987 miniseries Amerika.) The right has always been hypersensitive with regard to popular culture; I still remember being mystified by the conservative complaints about the 1999 film American Beauty, which I loved. The right's reaction to The Day After was in an equally irrational vein.
The Day After is only a partisan film if you consider a skeptical view about the concept of nuclear deterrence to be partisan. The right obviously did, thus turning the film into another field of battle in the 1980s culture war. It was wrongheaded of the conservative movement to do so, but as one character in the film notes, "Stupidity has a habit of getting its way."
After watching the film and the subsequent Koppel discussion, I couldn't help noting that a similarly styled film showing how Middle America deals with the consequences of anthropogenic climate change would be equally controversial, if not more so, today. What if ABC, or another broadcast (or cable) network, decided to make a film (presumably one more scientifically accurate than 2004's The Day After Tomorrow, which was heavily criticized for getting certain aspects of climate science wrong) about how the American heartland copes with the fallout from super-strong tornadoes and devastating drought, with a parallel storyline showing residents of the East Coast dealing with rising sea levels and residents of the West Coast losing their possessions to unstoppable wildfires? Would 100 million viewers watch this sort of film?
The Day After features a number of pre-blast scenes with residents of Lawrence, Ks., (the film's setting) discussing their concerns, or lack thereof, about the threat of nuclear war. How about setting a similarly themed film in Oklahoma, beginning with residents discussing their feelings about Senator James Inhofe's insistence that climate change is all a big hoax that Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI somehow fell for? Or, better yet, how about setting a climate film in Wichita, Ks., home of Koch Industries?
With the right-wing message machine far stronger today than it was in 1983, any network making a Day After-style film about climate change would need a level of courage that's even higher than the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. However, such a film, if done right, would obtain the same status of cultural immortality that The Day After did. Why not go for it?
I won't specifically lobby ABC to repeat their 1983 feat. However, I'll close by noting that one of the participants in the Koppel discussion that followed the film was the late Carl Sagan, who used an unforgettable analogy to describe the illogic of nuclear deterrence. Just seven years later, on that same network, he reminded us all about the risks of climate change. If there is anyone in the television-executive world who's a fan of Sagan, or just a fan of his or her own children and grandchildren, you know what to do.