excerpted from The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst
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.