Webinar: The Threat of Nuclear War: Four Decades After “The Day After”

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By chance yesterday I saw a post on Facebook about a webinar being held later that day about the 1983 movie “The Day After“. Thanks to it being held late afternoon in the US, I was able to attend (in the UK) before going to bed… although the topic isn’t really “bedtime reading/viewing”.

The full details about the webinar can be found at the following page: https://quincyinst.org/event/the-threat-of-nuclear-war-four-decades-after-the-day-after/?fbclid=IwAR1ZWEN_inEdJEg4yfO4SakQD8oaAVf83_L9ipRASSTZdjex0SjEAC8qVMQ In brief (taking text from that site), Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its nuclear threats against the United States and NATO have made nuclear war a top-of-mind issue for Americans once again. Nearly 70 percent of Americans now worry about a nuclear attack, a level of concern unparalleled since the Cold War.

Back then, the ever-present risk of nuclear annihilation was popular culture fare. On a Sunday night in 1983, more than 100 million people in the United States tuned in to ABC’s made for TV film “The Day After.” The film dramatized the fictional account of a Kansas town caught in the terror of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The film is said to have led then-President Ronald Reagan to support his first arms control agreement with the USSR, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (which President Trump withdrew from in 2019).

The webinar primarily involved a discussion with Jeff Daniels, who made a documentary on the making of “The Day After” and its impact; Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher of The Nation; and nuclear weapons expert Professor Sharon K. Weiner to explore the history and the legacy of the film and its lessons for today.

The webinar came at the perfect time for me, for while I had initially studied “The Day After” for my publication on Disaster Narratives by Design, it is now also part of my work on Visual Packing Culture and the work related to that. Consequently, it featured in my paper Splitting Atomic Symbolism: Words, Images, and Sounds of a Nuclear World that I gave at the “Hiroshima – Nagasaki – Fukushima – Articulations of the Nuclear. The Case of Japan” Conference at the University of Cologne in May.

The webinar was great and was recorded, so you can watch it back on YouTube.

As it was a recorded webinar, if you go to the YouTube page, you will see that there are two sets of comments. Those on the right of the video screen are some of those that were posted during the webinar itself. If you watch the video you can see all/most of the comments posted during the webinar further down the screen on the right (and they will appear as you watch the video). There was a big range of posts (many of which I had to take a deep breath over and ensure I didn’t refer to as I could see that it could rapidly descend into a battle of words that nobody would win – an interesting parallel with the focus of the movie under discussion perhaps?). You may also see within those comments, that I posted a few times and I was delighted that two of the questions which I asked got picked up and were asked to the panel. Also on the YouTube page, people can add comments on the video below the video – these are the ones that anyone can post now and weren’t seen by the panellists during the webinar.

Here are some of the things that I commented on during the webinar:

  • I (and some others) noted how “The Day After” was also shown in the UK. And, indeed, the documentary (to be first shown in July), as well as discussion in the webinar, points to the international impact of the film.
  • Having said that, I was not alone in pointing out that “Threads” is, in many respects, a better film. It also has the advantage over “The Day After” that it is relatively easy to find now – whether online, DVD, BluRay. It’s almost impossible to get hold of “The Day After”. I hope after the new documentary is released that this will lead to both it and the original film becoming more accessible.
  • One of the questions that I asked was “I would like to know about how the imagery of the mushroom clouds was done. The design looks very different to many other films. Almost like jellyfish rising up.” This was answered in the webinar and is further discussed in the documentary apparently.
  • Another question I asked – which got partly answered – was how we went from “The Day After” in 1983 to “True Lies” in 1994 in which detonating a nuclear bomb was described as “show time” and an increasing number of movies that trivialise nuclear weapons.
  • Whether you believe in nuclear deterrence or abolition of nuclear weapons, both require an understanding of dangers of nuclear weapons. That understanding is lacking in many today. A new “The Day After” is needed or, at the very least, a remastered version of original which can be easily found. The same could be said for “Special Bulletin” which is often over-looked.

During the final stages of the webinar there was a discussion about other nuclear war related films. Most I was familiar with. Some were new to me and I will now be trying to track down. I have a list of the films that I am using as my study of the visualisation of nuclear weapons in a post that I continue to update – see Nuclear Imagery and Looking for Movies and TV Programmes.

Anyway, it was a great webinar and I look forward to the release of the documentary on 5 July.

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