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THE 25TH YEAR AFTER
Before reports of post-production delays began leaking out in mid-October, the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel of nuclear winter, The Road, was scheduled to release on November 14. Now the studio is saying early 2009 for the Viggo Mortensen vehicle. Possibly as late as March.
This is a shame. Mid-November would have been an eerily appropriate drop date, and not just because November is the month that much of the northern hemisphere begins to resemble the cold dead landscape of McCarthy’s novel. A November 14 release would have seen The Road open exactly 25 years to the week after the last realistic American film portrayal of nuclear Apocalypse. This was, of course, The Day After, which aired on ABC during primetime on the evening of November 20, 1983. The most watched television movie in history, it was viewed by nearly half the adult population of the United States, or more than 100 million people.
I was not one of those millions. Like most of my friends in third grade, my parents ordered me to bed early on November 20, 1983. I did not protest the diktat. My life that chilly autumn was one long and losing battle against nuclear dread, a conflict made all the more intense by ABC’s massive marketing campaign in the run-up to The Day After. The ads depicting the blinding blasts and dark red mushroom clouds rolling skyward were on regular loop on ABC, at the time one of only three networks. Although fascinated by the possibility of seeing my own nightmares brought to life on television, I understood it was best to stay away.
It wasn’t just The Day After that made November 1983 so memorable. The film’s long cultural shadow overlapped with the political shadow cast by the increasingly tense U.S.-Soviet standoff. Ronald Reagan’s first years in office were among the darkest of the Cold War, a time when U.S. officials spoke blithely of a “winnable” nuclear war and actively prepared for it. One high-ranking Pentagon official, Thomas K. Jones, famously advocated in 1981 a civil defense program centered on the digging of holes covered with wooden doors and a layer of dirt. “If there are enough shovels around,” he told journalist Robert Scheer, “everybody’s going to make it.”
I was too young to grasp the full absurdity of this, or to understand the politics behind the debate over the Pershing II and the Strategic Defense Initiative, for that matter. But the scorched Earth stakes were all the time becoming more easily imagined. Pictures of missiles and mushroom clouds claimed the covers on the newsweeklies. Test patterns interrupted after-school cartoons. Freeze activists with clipboards and graphic pamphlets worked our building during dinner. On the afternoon of November 20, the rabbi addressed my Hebrew school class to try and reassure us. The attempt failed. We knew The Day After wasn’t “just a movie.” During that bleakest of Novembers, we could see that even the grown-ups were debilitated by the dread. It wasn’t for children that ABC set up national 1-800 counseling hotlines to deal with the psychological shock waves sent out by the film.
As with many people I know of a similar age, a return of 1983-flavored fear accompanied my reading of The Road. McCarthy’s harrowing novel of a man and his boy surviving nuclear winter brought it all back. When it comes to nuclear fear, we never grow up, and I fully expect the film version to disturb at least a week’s worth of sleep. Based on the few stills released so far, director John Hillcoat has captured every bit of the book’s relentlessly stark sorrow and horror. The names of the characters in the script tell the story: Man, Boy, Cannibal, Gang Member, Woman in Cellar, Baby Eater…
Although it remains the most famous, The Day After is not the nuclear war film that The Road most closely resembles in spirit. That would be Testament, another film that opened in November 1983. Like The Road, Testament centers on a suburban family’s survival after the blasts—McCarthy’s “long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.” It follows the deepening reality of this dying new world, as radiation sickness sets in and the plants wither and food stocks disappear.
But unlike McCarthy’s novel, Testament gets the weather wrong. When Testament and The Day After were made, filmmakers and audiences did not yet understand what was missing from these mild temperature deathscapes. It was only in the roundtable discussion that followed The Day After on ABC that the country was introduced to the concept of nuclear winter. The idea was explained with typical eloquence by Carl Sagan, who represented the Freeze movement in the lopsided post-Day After debate moderated by Ted Koppel. Defending the balance of terror from across the table were Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, William F. Buckley and George Shultz. (All of whom, it should be noted, have since endorsed Sagan’s vision of a nuclear-free planet. Only Buckley did not live to make the conversion.)
At the time of the roundtable, few knew just how close we had come to triggering our permanent winter just two weeks prior. On November 2, NATO governments commenced the most elaborate and realistic war game of the Cold War. Known as Able Archer ’83, the ten-day simulation went through the motions of a mounting international crisis culminating in a nuclear exchange; it involved multiple levels of official involvement, from launch commanders to heads of state. The Kremlin, led by the ailing and paranoid Soviet premier Yuri Andropov, was by then already on extreme edge about Western intentions. The NATO exercise sent Soviet nerves to a screaming pitch. Some inside the Kremlin thought the inevitable was at hand, and that their best bet was a preemptive first-strike. It was the Cuban Missile Crisis nobody knew about at the time; not even the President of the United States.
There have been similar nuclear war scares since the end of the Cold War. In 1995, a weather satellite launched from Norway led to a heart-stopping scramble in the Kremlin, as Boris Yeltsin, reportedly fuming drunk at the time, had just a handful of minutes to decide whether the radar blip was a missile headed Moscow’s way. But even as reports of such incidents became known in the 1990s, there were no calls for abolition, no revived disarmament movement, as in the 1980s. By the mid-90s, the Great Nuclear Forgetting was well underway. Even though most of the nuclear weapons left over from the Cold War remain on hair triggers, we’ve all allowed ourselves an extended vacation from nuclear fear. Not that the temptation to forget is new. As Sagan wrote in 1983, at the height of the danger, “There is a tendency — psychiatrists call it ‘denial’ — to put it out of our minds, not to think about it. But if we are to deal intelligently, wisely [with nuclear weapons] then we must steel ourselves to contemplate the horrors of nuclear war.”
I wonder how many of those who came of age in the 1990s have ever “steeled themselves to contemplate the horrors of nuclear war.” I mean really contemplate it; feel it in their guts, the way we did, day and night, for weeks, months, years. Will this post-Cold War generation — for whom The Day After is just a daytime Steven Guttenberg movie with cheesy 80s effects on the Sci-Fi Channel — will they see The Road as horror-genre dystopia along the lines of 28 Days Later? Will they understand this toxic snow-frosted world could be their own in a matter of months? Do they understand that we’ve come so close to conjuring this nightmare, and are almost certain to again?
At some level, I’m glad for their ignorant bliss. And more than a little jealous. My sister, born in 1984, never knew the paralyzing fear I battled during her infancy, or that our parents lived under as teenagers. For that I am happy. Still, fear has its uses. It was the waking nights of detailed contemplation of nuclear war that spurred and sustained the anti-nuclear movement in the U.S. and Europe. And it was the devastating realism of The Day After that helped change Ronald Reagan’s belief in winnable nuclear war, leading to the arms control approach taken by his second administration. In 1986, when Gorbachev and Reagan met in Reykjavik to discuss withdrawing mid-range nukes from Europe and contemplate total disarmament, an official within Reagan’s entourage sent Day After director Nicholas Meyer a note. “Don’t think your movie didn’t have any part of this,” it said, “because it did.”
If a future Obama-Medvedev summit succeeds in putting us back on the road to dismantling the world’s largest stocks of nuclear weapons, it’s possible Cormac McCarthy will deserve a thank-you note of his own.
This article first appeared in Last Exit magazine.
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