The Day After, Threads, Testament, and Special Bulletin (review)
Duck and Cower
It’s easy to forget today how close global nuclear annihilation genuinely seemed in the 1980s. We got past the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union without setting off any mushroom clouds and had those brief years of the 1990s that were downright apocalyptically carefree, and it was like we all let our breath out at the same time, a giant global sigh of relief. And even today, the threat from dirty bombs and rogue nukes and the like, while scary enough, just can’t compete on an endangering-all-humanity scale. Give it twenty years, when China and India will have consumerized their populations even more and a billion and half computer programmers and junior marketing executives will all want SUVs and this larger global middle class will be fighting over shrinking oil reserves, and we might have to start worrying about The End Of The World As We Know It again. But not yet.
As a teenager, though, I fully expected not to live out my life without seeing worldwide nuclear holocaust, though in that self-preservationist way that you forget pain and trauma, the constant low-level terror of that expectation has receded. It comes slamming back when I rewatch The Day After and Threads and Testament and Special Bulletin, the four 1983 television movies that contributed in a big way to my adolescent nuclear neuroses. I’m 14 again, and lying awake at night wondering when the bombs were gonna come. There was a fatalistic inevitability to the certainty that was numbing.
And we all knew it. It wasn’t just little kids being scared little kids. When The Day After aired, it was almost like a national holiday, if a miserable one. Teachers assigned students to watch it. Parents were encouraged to watch with their kids. There was never any question of “protecting the children” from nuclear nightmares — the idea was that kids shouldn’t be shielded from “reality.” We kids weren’t wrong in being worried. The grownups figured we were all gonna fry, too.
The flick today seems pretty cornball, at least before the bombs fall, what with the farmer’s daughter running off to have sex with her fiancé the day before their wedding and all the heartland-of-the-nation crap, even if it is intended ironically, all this definitively American cheese happening literally directly on top of all the ICBMs that will soon help kill off modern civilization: that’s all-American, too, a rain of nuclear death. I’m sure I didn’t make that connection as a kid — I just remember watching with intense, suspenseful dread, waiting for the bombs to start falling, which we knew was gonna happen: the most realistic depiction of nuclear war ever created for family consumption, they told us. No, scratch that: ABC hyped that, preying on our anxieties, and very, very effectively, too. You couldn’t not watch this film… and even today, if I happen to come across it on TV (which happens surprisingly often; with the likelihood of what is portrays actually occurring having receded, I guess it’s considered more suitable fare for channel-surfing), I find myself unable to flip away, mesmerized by the reminder of how damn scared I was then, watching Steve Guttenberg walking down that lonely country road, cows, a horse, a swingset, the last moments of normality…
Even today, even with its fairly fakey FX, even how it uses all that old test-site footage of buildings getting blown away that we’ve all seen a hundred times, The Day After is still terrifying as hell.
And yet it’s got nothing on the British TV film Threads, which aired on PBS here in America, and makes The Day After look like a Sunday picnic. When I say that Threads is the single most horrifying, harrowing movie I’ve ever seen, it is only because it seared a black furrow across my soul as a teen that has never healed, and because it still plagues the dim recesses of my imagination. A character here says, “If a bomb does drop, I wanna be pissed out of my mind and straight underneath it when it happens,” and this movie pulls not a single punch in showing you exactly why this is not too extreme a position to hold.
Like The Day After, Threads follows a number of ordinary folks — here, in the industrial city of Sheffield, in northern England — in the runup to a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. But it blasts away — pun intended — all pretense of movie nicety or movie phoniness, and it puts a documentary-style emphasis on all the civil preparations for war, the combination of which gives the film a particular kind of horror: it suggests that our leaders, in their very careful planning, believed that a nuclear war could be survivable. So while pregnant Ruth (Karen Meagher) and her fiancé, Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale), pointlessly scrape old wallpaper from the walls of their new apartment, a desperate attempt to pretend everything is fine, there’s an orderly British calmness to hospitals being cleared for expected casualties and workers removing the art from museum walls and an unruffled BBC announcer intoning that “the time has now come to make everything ready for you and your family in case an air attack happens.”
The attack happens, and it’s bad — from the shocked woman who pisses herself when she sees the mushroom cloud rising over the city to the man caught on the toilet when the bomb goes off to the cat rolling around in agony in the firestorm, director Mick Jackson and screenwriter Barry Hines inject an earthy and stupefyingly graphic reality into the film that is absolutely and literally unforgettable.
But that’s only the beginning. The film’s title refers to the tenuous connections that keep our modern urban society running, and how easily they’re shattered — the government’s “preparations” for nuclear war were impossibly optimistic, and anarchy and chaos soon reign. Threads follows Ruth (and the child her unborn daughter becomes) in the weeks, months, and years after the war, and amidst all the sharply poignant reminders of the little things that have been lost forever — from eyeglasses and cigarettes to video games and paperback books — and some of the most horrific imagery I’ve ever seen on film (conditions in what remains of one hospital defy description) is a stark depiction not just of the end of civilization but the beginning of what will replace it, and why the dead truly are the lucky ones. The blank stares of bone-deep shock on the faces of the “survivors” in the aftermath is bad enough. But as England is, over the course of 13 years, reduced to medieval levels of sustenance and raw survival, the feral animality of the children of this new world, the ones born into it, who’ve known nothing else, is something I will never, ever be able to forget.
There goes the neighborhood
Nuclear holocaust is practically genteel by comparison in Testament, in which no bombs fall, at least not onscreen, and no firestorms consume cities, at least not onscreen. Instead, it’s a simply told tale of a tight-knit small town in Northern California watching civilization — and themselves — slowly slip away in the aftermath of a large, if not actually global, nuclear exchange.
I wept my way through this one at age 14, too — PBS aired it, and like a scab you’re not supposed to pick at but can’t help scratching, I watched it even though I knew what I was in for. And I didn’t turn it off when tears turned to wracking sobs as the film kept ratcheting up the tragedy, the stupid, avoidable tragedy, because I was convinced I was seeing my own future. Might as well be prepared.
Like The Day After‘s postscript caveat that what it depicted was very likely far less grim and terrible than reality would be, so is Testament, for all that it is almost impossible to bear, it’s so affecting, seems like only a mild case of postapocalyptic calamity. Jane Alexander (The Ring, The Cider House Rules) gives perhaps her best performance ever as Carol Wetherly, wife and mother, who tries to hold what’s left of her family together as fallout from faraway San Francisco tightens its silent grip on her town. Her husband, Tom (William Devane: Hollow Man, Space Cowboys), called to say he was on his way home from the city when the bombs fell — the days and weeks of waiting for him to turn up are occupied with marshaling domestic and emotional resources around young teenagers Brad (Ross Harris), who finds new strength in his uncertain adolescent self as the new man of the house, and Mary Liz (Roxana Zal), who, in one of the most deplorably sad scenes in the film, despairs of all the wonders of womanhood she never going to experience; and young Scottie (Lukas Haas, in his screen debut).
Alexander is softly, steely maternal — if anyone was going to see a family through a crisis, it would be her Carol. But of course this is something way beyond the control of even the most resourceful mom, of even the friendliest, most sociable town. No amount of hanging together, of looking out for one another, can save these people. The absence of mushroom clouds and twisted wreckage made Testament more potent, in one way, than The Day After and Threads, by making sure none of us forgot that we wouldn’t have had to be anywhere near a bomb to be a victim of a nuclear war. Testament‘s power comes in all the understatements that stressed that point: one of the film’s most devastating moments comes when Carol’s neighbor Phil (Kevin Costner: The Upside of Anger, Open Range, in one of his first film appearances) shuffles wordlessly down the neighborhood sidewalk, lugging a bureau drawer that’s just the right size to serve as a coffin for his dead baby.
We interrupt this program…
If you remember Special Bulletin from your childhood, too, you probably remember the War of the Worlds-style panic it stirred. Despite the constant warnings throughout the broadcast (which appears only at the opening of the VHS version) that this faux news report about terrorists holding the city of Charleston as a nuclear hostage was indeed faux, some of the most credulous members of the viewing audience thought it was real.
Maybe because the events it depicted were entirely plausible. Unlike The Day After or Threads, whose storylines feature long geopolitical buildups to nuclear war, the nuclear threat strikes suddenly here… which means Special Bulletin is by far the cinematic nuclear worry of the 80s that still holds its own particular terror today. This is the scenario we still need to worry about… or one like it.
Director Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai, The Siege) and writer Marshall Herskovitz created a film that is as much a lampoon on the media as it is an expression of cultural anxieties about nuclear weapons. Though the “RBS” coverage of the disaster unfolding on live TV is rather clunky and unsophisticated compared to today’s slicker reportage, the self-important trappings of network news are instantly recognizable: the “America Under Siege” theme music and logo graphic; the almost gleeful experts with their computer simulations, demonstrating what would happen were the nuke on a boat in Charleston’s harbor to explode; the masochistic, masturbatory talking-head coverage that criticizes the media for its complicity in the story (the network hands over a newsfeed to the terrorists, with which they communicate their demands to the world); the smug and arrogant reporters and anchors congratulating themselves on scooping aspects of the story.
It’s nuclear physicists, actually, who’re holding the city hostage — including two played by David Clennon (Silver City, Antitrust) and David Rasche (Just Married, Teddy Bears’ Picnic) — as a protest for how the bombs they build are used by the government to threaten life as we know it. And if their stunt seemed farfetched in the 80, it feels less so today, after the college-professor terrorist Unabomber and the anthrax attacker of 2001, whom some believe may have been a government scientist out to make a point. Special Bulletin had an insidious, satiric charm twenty years ago. Today, it feels a lot less preposterous.