Movies hold the power to teach and to persuade. Today, there is one subject that appears to be largely absent from popular movies: nuclear war. Nuclear war movies were huge in Hollywood from the 1960s to the 1980s. Today, however, they are rare.
Nuclear war is, and will be, a threat for as long as nuclear weapons exist. Everyone needs to understand this threat, especially millennials. They are the future, after all. But many millennials are too young to have seen the eye-opening movies of an earlier era, which revealed what would happen in the event of a nuclear war. These movies include On the Beach from 1959, Testament from 1983, and many more.
The movie that really had people talking was the 1983 film The Day After. This movie affected many people, including President Ronald Reagan. In his diary, he wrote about the sorrow the movie left him feeling. While the movie got mixed reviews, there is no denying that it made millions of people think more deeply about the possibility that nuclear war could occur. Because nuclear war movies are outdated, they don’t hold the attention of millennials today; we need new movies to warn of the nuclear war threat.
Watching the war. Until recently, I hadn’t heard of most of these movies, let alone seen them. I decided to watch The Day After, just to see what it was about. The movie shows a normal society in and around Kansas City in the 1980s, during the height of the Cold War. When nuclear war breaks out, we first see the effects of the electromagnetic pulse: The cars on the road stop abruptly, leaving one man with no choice but to start running. The electricity throughout the area is cut off. Panic sweeps the streets. Crowds of people flood the grocery stores to supply their fallout shelters.
The movie also shows the bodies of men, women, and children disintegrating almost instantly in the fireball. The lives of all these people are taken in less than a heartbeat. In the aftermath of the explosion, many people hide in fallout shelters, and those left on the surface suffer from radiation sickness. By the end of the movie, almost everyone is feeling the effects of radiation; almost everyone is dying.
The movie left me completely stunned. (The 1984 British film Threads, which follows a similar narrative, is reportedly even more unsettling.) I had learned about the power of nuclear weapons, but never had I seen just how devastating nuclear war could be. You can read about it, and you can hear about it, but actually seeing it is a different story. To see thousands of people vaporized in less than a second, buildings toppling on people faster than they can react, and everyone slowly dying of cancer is as eye-opening as it gets.
The words that filled the screen at the end of the film made it even more disturbing: “The catastrophic events you have just witnessed are, in all likelihood, less severe than the destruction that would actually occur in the event of a full nuclear strike against the United States. It is hoped that the images of this film will inspire the nations of the earth, their peoples and leaders, to find the means to avert that fateful day.” Based on the tense relations in the world today, and the unpredictable behavior of North Korea and our current US president, I fear this fateful day may be closer than we think.
The film’s impacts. I’m not the only one affected by this movie. When it aired on November 20, 1983, many people tuned in, shocked at the pictures before them. It was a huge television moment at the time. Following the broadcast, Mayor David Longhurst of Lawrence, Kansas, said, “I do not want this film to be a preview of coming attractions. We must not wait until the day after.” Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times wrote: “Whether ‘The Day After’ is dramatically good (which it is) seems almost irrelevant compared with the message it pounds home. Because of its subject and potential audience via TV on Nov. 20, it may be the most important movie ever made.”
The movie also had some negative reviews. John Corry of the New York Times wrote: “Meanwhile, no matter what its political content, high earnestness or good intentions, ‘The Day After’ must be judged as a movie drama. By any conventional standard on this, it is terrible.”
Despite the mixed reviews, there is no denying the message and power of this movie. Even Reagan was forced to consider the effects nuclear war could rain upon the world. Reagan watched the film before it aired and wrote about it in his diary: “Columbus Day. In the morning at Camp D. I ran the tape of the movie ABC is running on the air Nov. 20. It’s called ‘The Day After.’ It has Lawrence Kansas wiped out in a nuclear war with Russia. It is powerfully done, all $7 mil. worth. It’s very effective & left me greatly depressed… My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent & to see there is never a nuclear war.”
Modern movies. Why don’t Americans see these kinds of movies anymore? Nuclear weapons still exist. World relationships are still tense. President Donald Trump tends to make some questionable and reactionary decisions based on emotion, as does North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Because these leaders are unpredictable, the public needs something to make us think about how devastating a nuclear war would be. We need something that will affect people as much as The Day After.
I know this movie affected me, but I was curious to learn whether I was the only one. I sent a few video clips, which depicted the more horrifying aspects of the movie, to two peers. They reacted similarly to me. One said that the clips didn’t change his mind about nuclear war, because he already strongly agrees that nuclear war is a serious threat. He did, however, agree that modern nuclear movies would be a great way to educate those who are uninformed on this subject while simultaneously entertaining modern viewers. The other person said that the videos opened her eyes to the horrors that could come from nuclear war. She was quite bothered by the scenes she saw.
Movies are a large part of our current culture. If you want to get a millennial’s attention, make a movie about it. Nuclear war scared people then, and it will again, especially with the incredible update in movie technology since the 1980s. New movies will be able to show more graphic detail than past movies could even dream of, giving viewers a realistic glimpse of nuclear war.
Movies depicting dystopian futures can change a generation’s perspective on geopolitics. There are plenty of dystopian movies today, but far too few about nuclear war.