On November 20th, 1983, ABC broadcasted a made-for-television movie called The Day After, starring a number of notable screen actors and directed by none other than Nicholas Meyer of The Wrath of Khan fame. The marketing for the film featured a number of pithy, historically meaningful blurbs, including the mysterious suggestion that the movie was "Beyond imagining ..." which, if you think about it, sounds ridiculous for a number of reasons.
In the film, world politics turned ugly overnight and somebody, somewhere pressed The Red Button. Missiles roared skyward, the Russians vaporized Kansas City, civilization broke down, soldiers abandoned their posts, farmers locked away their daughters and Steve Guttenberg got radiation poisoning. Basically, the sum of all fears.
Every filmmaker, to a greater or lesser degree, wants his or her film to change the world. The artists responsible for The Day After practically demanded this outcome. The epilogue of the film says it all:
"It is hoped that the images of this film will inspire the nations of this earth, the peoples and leaders, to find the means to avert [nuclear war]."
In other words, the filmmakers wanted their film to serve as a wake-up call to world leaders (who were assumed to watch lot of TV). They got their wish. The film was a monumental success and, combined with Sting's powerful, lyrical hope that the Russians loved their children (too), formed the nexus of a cultural revolution which apparently convinced all self-respecting, music-loving, TV-watching nuclear powers to reconsider the whole Cold War thing and sue for peace. Walls fell, evil empires collapsed and the nuclear arsenals of the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. were wheeled into the basement. For the world, it was a happy ending. For myself and many like me, it was but the beginning of a lifetime of neurosis stemming from a childhood of unrealized terror.
Author and filmmaker Daedalus Howell calls this particular neurosis a "preteen thanatos," likening the post-traumatic stress of viewing The Day After as a child, and his ensuing lifelong melancholy, to Freud's theory that the realization of one's own imminent death induces within one an urge to (and here I paraphrase) get the hell on with it, prompting violent and/or self-destructive behavior. In this case, however, we are talking about thanatos on a cultural scale. The Day After, coming as it did, at the height of U.S.-U.S.S.R. Cold War tensions, catalyzed the volatile atmosphere of nuclear hysteria in the U.S., terrifying an entire generation of American children into fervently doubting the possibility of ever reaching adulthood, while at the same time inducing those in power to abandon the very course of action which might have led to the realization of that terror. In other words: thanatos interruptus.
Those of us at the cusp of Generation X should have rejoiced. We did not. Deep down, we felt a sense of profound sadness - of loss. I, for one, had made plans. Following Armageddon, I'd been counting on the chance to explore the ruins of Western civilization, dreamed about my future as a hero and savior rising from the ashes to lead mankind to salvation and literally salivated at the prospect of convincing Jenny Cartwright to let me touch her breasts before the bombs fell - I'd been cheated, in other words, out of the best parts of my as yet un-lived life. More than 10 years would go by before I'd begin to figure out how to deal.