Thursday, November 28, 2013

Day 28: 30 Days, 30 Years After The Day After: "Scaring Reagan"

“Scaring Reagan”
by Steven Church

As I sat on his cramped loveseat in burning Los Angeles and listened to him talk, Nicholas Meyer, Director of The Day After started piecing it all together for me. He told me a story about a psychologist friend of his who specialized in terrorism and worked with the Reagan administration’s Department of Defense in the early ‘80s. It was the fall of ‘83, and this friend was summoned to the Pentagon for a screening of Meyer’s film prior to its network premiere.
Meyer’s friend claimed that the joint chiefs of staff, bigwigs in the military and executive branches—”people with a lot of fruit on their lapels,” as Meyer put it—were all severely traumatized by what they witnessed in the film, ashen-faced and sullen. Reportedly, presidential advisor David Gergen had one question for this room full of powerful policymakers, all of them stricken by The Day After.
 “What are we going to do about this movie?”
            What they didn’t do was come after Meyer and label him a communist or a socialist. He had been careful not to reveal his political leanings to the press and was, as he freely admitted, “the most capitalist SOB you’ll ever meet.”
They also didn’t come after the science or technical aspects behind the film. Meyer’s insider friend, knowing the director’s work as he did, warned them off of this track. Meyer had done his research before making this film. He was no TV hack. He was a professional.
            Instead, in response the administration participated in an interview on ABC with Ted Koppel immediately following the broadcast. George Schultz, Reagan’s secretary of state, blasted the movie for being unrealistic and simple liberal propaganda. As one would expect, he also touted the administration’s position that the only reason to have nuclear weapons was for deterrence of threat from others.
On the same panel discussion, Carl Sagan also criticized the film, but for different reasons. He argued that it was entirely too optimistic and glossed over the harsh realities of a nuclear winter. Basically, though, he was also saying that it was unrealistic.
While many viewers will today report feeling quite traumatized by the movie, polls conducted immediately following the film suggested that it had little effect on the average American’s feelings about nuclear war or government policy on arms proliferation.
Meyer didn’t want to believe this. He didn’t trust people when they testified that the movie hadn’t changed them in one way or the other, and he ultimately refused to accept this response. He believed that the movie would have consequences beyond the present moment, and there is at least anecdotal evidence to suggest that, as Meyer predicted, the fallout from the movie was slow in coming but far-reaching.
In other words, I think Meyer was happy to hear me say that I was hung-up on the film, happy to have me sitting in his room telling him how his movie seriously messed with my head.
He was trying to mess with my head—and the heads of an entire generation.
            Though privately distraught to hear that the short-term effects of the movie had been grossly exaggerated, he felt vindicated completely when he later learned of entries in Reagan’s memoirs and journals about the profound effect the movie had on his psyche. Reagan’s “depression” after seeing the film is actually quite well documented.
In his epic biography of the president, Dutch, author Edmund Morris discusses Reagan’s cheerful confidence about winning the nuclear arms race against the Soviets and the dampening effect the movie had on his spirits.
“Even his optimism, however, quailed when he saw an advance print of The Day After . . . The image of Jason Robards walking through the radioactive ashes of Lawrence, Kansas, left him dazed, and he entered into his diary the first and only admission I have been able to find in his papers, that he was ‘greatly depressed.’”


I suspect Reagan saw something in the film—however melodramatic it might have been—that posed a threat not simply to his political agenda, but to his career, his identity, and perhaps his legacy, and this is what depressed him. Reagan wasn’t a total dummy. He understood the power of film, that unique ability to blur the lines of reality just enough to make life magical, confusing, and even a bit depressing.
Meyer said, “I may not have changed the public’s mind, but I changed one guy’s mind,” and he paused for effect. “I changed the president’s mind,” he said, glowing and puffing up a little in his seat.


Day 27: 30 Days, 30 Years After The Day After: "Being Thundarr"

“Being Thundarr”
by Steven Church

Growing up in the eighties we all knew we were going to die horribly. It was just a matter of time. So of course much of our fantasy fiction and cartoons were about how we’d survive the apocalypse. And the key word here was “fantasy,” because surviving it wasn’t a reality—at least not surviving it in a form or identity that resembled the one we’d come to know. We understood intuitively that adaptation was the key to survival.
It’s mutants who would inherit the earth.
As a nation, as a family, we were just beginning to recognize the legacy of pollution and toxic waste, just beginning to see that, while the human race as we know it might be wiped out, life would resurface, life would adapt and change. Mutation made sense. Mutation was normal.
I imagined myself surviving not by developing a hard carapace and pincers, not by mutating into some half-beast, but by adapting in more subtle ways, much like another one of my Saturday-morning cartoon heroes, Thundarr the Barbarian.
Of course, Thundarr was a Conan the Barbarian rip-off. He even looked like Conan and possessed the same Hulk-like eloquence with the English language. (This seems to be what largely defines a hulk or a barbarian—the inability to form complete sentences and the tendency to speak in dramatic generalizations. “Thundarr mad. Thundarr smash.”) Still, I liked him. Thundarr carried himself with simple dignity. He not only survived, he thrived. Sure he was a “barbarian”—but he was perfectly adapted to his strange environment. He made friends and traveled extensively. He slept under the stars most nights and killed many bad mutants. He was both feared and respected by hordes of survivors. What more could you ask for?
I’m sure I wasn’t the only boy who envisioned himself rising from the poisonous post-nuke atmosphere to ride a mutated horse-beast through a charred wasteland. (Was I?) I wasn’t the only one who dreamed of wolf-ants and survival in a land where the Statue of Liberty had been toppled and half-buried in toxic sludge. (Was I?) This is why these cartoons were popular—because they spoke to a deep fear and a deep need in all of us, the need to mutate, adapt, and ultimately survive the apocalypse.
In my childhood imagination, survival was easy enough. After the bombs fell and the weak were vaporized, I figure I’d be just like Thundarr. I’d hook up with a super-hot sorceress princess and a fiercely loyal Chewbacca-like beast. We’d form a team of mutant heroes and travel the polluted planet fighting evil and the inevitable opportunistic profiteering mutants. We’d face half-men and half-animals, giant insects and carnivorous rats, and that two-faced mutant with his fancy helmet. We’d tangle with lizard people and massive meat-loving cockroaches.
It would be a hard life. But we’d persevere. What choice did we have? We were children of the eighties.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Day 26: 30 Days, 30 Years After The Day After: "No Reservations"

“No Reservations”
by Steven Church

I’m sure it was a no-brainer when Hollywood came calling on the mayor of a small college town in the early ‘80s. How could you say no? Estimates suggest that The Day After pumped almost one million dollars into the Lawrence economy. It was good business. But David Longhurst and other city leaders were parents in 1982 when they made the decision to bring a fake apocalypse to town.
I asked Longhurst if he had any reservations about The Day After coming to Lawrence in 1982. He responded matter-of-factly: “I had no reservations about the filming taking place in Lawrence or any negative impact that might have on the community.”
That seems clear enough. No reservations.
After I prompted him with a few nosy questions about his background, Longhurst remembered that his own mother had been peripherally involved with the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico. He told me that she was a biologist who placed caged mice in the blast zone to test the effects of fallout.
I couldn’t help but wonder what she might have thought about her son up there onstage arguing against nuclear proliferation while the children of Lawrence lived like mice trapped in the blast zone—or the fake blast zone.
Longhurst believed that, as troubling and absurd, even surreal as I’m suggesting The Day After might have been for Lawrence, the movie was a wake-up call the community, and perhaps even the world, desperately needed.
He did admit that my questions reminded him of the filmstrips he used to see in public school during the ‘50s and ‘60s—a mushroom cloud in the distance and kids scrambling beneath their desks in school to protect themselves.
He said, “This image, this stereotype, suggested that nuclear war is not ‘the end of the world’ and that we could certainly survive it—we needed only get underneath our desks and everything would be OK. The Day After shattered that stereotype.”
It shattered the hope that defined his generation’s relationship with the apocalypse. Even Nicholas Meyer’s dog tags carried the promise of someone’s survival, of being found at least and recognized. But by 1983, most kids my age believed that we would die sometime within the next ten years in an all-out nuclear war between Reagan and the Soviets. We believed this because that’s what we were told. Repeatedly.
For me, and probably many others, The Day After confirmed my beliefs in the inevitability of the apocalypse and suggested it would be happening a lot sooner than we expected. However, many people in Lawrence, the mayor included—and many throughout the world—felt that this kind of collective suffering of a fake war might actually change minds and motivate masses. This optimism, though characteristic of the generation that believes it, was perhaps a bit misguided.
Longhurst himself admits, almost offhandedly, “Nothing significant changed as a result of the movie.”
I don’t want to believe this is true.
I got the feeling that, despite his statement, Longhurst would, like Nicholas Meyer, describe his experience with the movie as one of the most important things he ever did. It was probably one of his greatest challenges—one of his true shining moments—as a mayor. It gave him and the city of Lawrence a stage—just like a real tragedy. It’s a shame, perhaps, that the only way for us to be heard was to destroy ourselves onstage, in a public performance of collective immolation.


Day 25: 30 Days, 30 Years After The Day After: "Final Gift"

“Final Gift”
by Steven Church

Toward the end of their lives, both of my grandparents called the Kiowa County Memorial Hospital in Greensburg home. In their final years, they were forced to abandon the house where they’d lived for almost seventy years, but they didn’t move far. In fact, they moved just a few blocks away. You could almost see their old house from their new home.
Shortly after their deaths, my dad and his sisters decided to sell the family cabin in Colorado—a place gifted to them by my grandfather’s will, a place built by him and my father, mother, aunts, and uncles in 1963, a place where we retreated every summer, away from the Kansas heat, humidity, and flatness, a place that nurtured generations of family. They sold it at the peak of the market and made a nice chunk of change. But we also lost something—something priceless that was perhaps inevitably doomed—a sense of shared history, story, and connection.
            When the tornado of 2007 destroyed Greensburg, it took some of that connection too. It wiped away the architecture of family, the structure and keystones of stories, and though a new place could be rebuilt, new memories made, they would never replace the old.
            When my dad and I visited Greensburg that summer after the storm, we stopped at the hospital where both of his parents had lived out their last days. We waded through puddles of water, over piles of debris.  Beds crowded the hallway and black mold crept up the drywall. After the tornado, the rains had come and stayed for days. Here and there lay the waterlogged bodies of stuffed animals—the left-behind toy pets of people who were, by that time, calling somewhere else home.
            I ducked into a room not far from the one where my grandfather had died, and I saw written on a small dry-erase board these words of orientation for a patient with dementia, or Alzheimer’s, like my grandmother:
            Today is May 4, 2007.
            They’d left the day standing. Permanent, perhaps. Or at least until the bulldozers came and pushed it all down. But forever etched into the memory of people who had been there and who’d witnessed the end—even if their brains couldn’t quite make sense of it all.

Near the end of The Day After, Oaks, our heroic doctor, is clearly dying from radiation sickness. His nurse, Nancy Bauer, died earlier, offscreen. Some sort of hemorrhage or aneurysm. Others are falling too. Dying and filling up the grave outside. The hospital halls are lined with desperate, sickened people, and the pregnant woman has already given birth. Even that does little to lift Dr. Oaks’s spirits. There is nothing left for him to do. The blind boy with has bandages is screaming again. Always sitting up in bed and screaming. Nothing comforts him any longer. Dr. Oaks’ white hair hangs from his scalp in errant wisps.
He decides that he wants to return home one last time. He makes his way to Kansas City in the back of a military transport truck. He stops first at the World War II memorial tower in Kansas City, only to find bodies strewn about, and then stumbles his way to the brick-strewn street that was his old neighborhood, his home. Everything is charred black. He sinks to his knees at the sight of it. In the dust and rubble he discovers his wife’s wristwatch. The hands frozen. Time stopped.
He looks up and sees in the remnants of his home a family of squatters seated beneath a makeshift shelter. Dr. Oaks is angry at first. He yells at them, tells them to get out, to go away, but they have nowhere else to go. The children stare up at him.
The gaunt-faced father gazes up at him, raises his hand meekly, but he does not point a rifle at Dr. Oaks, does not threaten him. Instead he reaches out and offers a bright round orange. It’s a final offering of life, a gift of fruit in the end.