Opinion | ‘Oppenheimer’ Is the Origin Story. These Three Movies Reveal Our Nuclear Present.

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Opinion | ‘Oppenheimer’ Is the Origin Story. These Three Movies Reveal Our Nuclear Present.


So, the filmmakers of “The Day After” took it a step further to say, if something went bad in Europe, what would that look like? And it’s not told from New York City. It’s not told from Los Angeles. It’s told from rural Lawrence, Kan., which seemingly wouldn’t be the first target for a incoming missile strike except for the fact that they host intercontinental ballistic missiles in the farm fields.

Clip from “The Day After”

Joe Huxley: That’s about 150 Minuteman missile silos spread halfway down the state of Missouri.

Hennigan: That is still American policy today. Those missiles are in the Great Plains states to this day.

Clip from “The Day After”

Joe Huxley: That’s an awful lot of bull’s-eyes.

Hennigan: Nuclear war is not something that you can really wrap your mind around because of the unnatural horror that’s involved in it. And “The Day After” puts it on in full display.

A narrative that the film does well is that it takes you from the vantage point of average people.

Clip from “The Day After”

News broadcast: — press secretary David Townes reports that both sides are engaged in frank and earnest talks —

Hennigan: Before the bombs drop, you’re getting information in dribs and drabs. You’re not seeing the whole chessboard. People are hearing things about potential conflict breaking out.

Clip from “The Day After”

Bruce Gallatin: What’s going on?

Student: They say the Russians just invaded West Germany.

Cynthia: We’re not going to nuke the Russians to save the Germans. I mean, if you were talking oil in Saudi Arabia, then I’d be real worried.

Hennigan: They’re not really sure what’s occurring, and then all of a sudden there’s a run on the grocery.

Clip from “The Day After”

Grocery store chaos: Out of my way! The batteries!

Hennigan: And for me, I can relate to that. I think a lot of Americans can relate to that coming out of the pandemic. You start seeing things in the news that are troubling. You don’t really fully understand what the whole picture is.

Clip from “The Day After”

Jim Dahlberg: Don’t you know there’s pretty much a national emergency going on?

Eve Dahlberg: Well, it’s just going to have to go on without me because your daughter is getting married tomorrow, and I got 67 mouths to feed.

Hennigan: But, then you’re like, wow, the whole world has suddenly changed.

It was deeply researched, and not only is it told from the ground level, but it also has the science to back it up of the dramatic effects of living in an irradiated world.

Clip from “The Day After”

Intake officer: What’s your injury?

Airman Billy McCoy: I, uh, I can’t keep nothing in. Not even my own hair.

Hennigan: “The Day After” was such an unprecedented exploration of nuclear conflict. It made TV history.

“ABC7 NY Eyewitness News”: It was a movie like no other movie, and it had a profound impact … We’ll hear from people who, like you, watched the ultimate disaster movie tonight on television.

Hennigan: And it was so paradigm-shifting that the U.S. government took time on the station afterward to talk directly to the American public about what the risks of nuclear war are.

“ABC7 NY Eyewitness News”: More than 700 people packed Riverside Church tonight to watch “The Day After.’’ Many said they came here because they were afraid to watch it alone. While the TV movie was being shown, the streets of New York were a lot less crowded than usual for a Sunday night.

Hennigan: Not only did it have this cultural impact, but it also swayed policy. Ronald Reagan, famously, after watching “The Day After,” softened his stance and rhetoric surrounding nuclear weapons with the Soviet Union, and indeed, his administration had major breakthroughs in arms control and de-escalation efforts with the U.S.S.R. in the years afterward.

It’s hard to keep the American public’s attention when it comes to arcane subject matters like nuclear weapons, but films and art in general is the most accessible way for people to understand these very, very difficult subjects. They’re able to stir emotions in people, to provoke them to become more active in their futures. When you’re emotionally stirred and you’re activated to do something.

I don’t think a lot of people are going to find history books and white papers accessible, but these films do a really good job conveying in a way that’s both entertaining as well as being informative. So if you do want to know more, I would recommend watching “Dr. Strangelove,” “Fail Safe,” “The Day After” — and check out our ongoing series, At the Brink.



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