Documentary and special Lawrence screening looks at the night nuclear war came to the living rooms of Americans

photo by: Courtesy: Television Event producers

A screen shot of a nuclear blast from the documentary "Television Event," which chronicles the making of the movie "The Day After."

In November of 1983, you could get out of your chair, walk to your TV, put your fingers on its dial, and turn to your ABC station to find the likes of “Happy Days” and “The Love Boat.”

Well, except for that one night — Nov. 20, 1983 — when the network showed scenes of nuclear war, complete with vaporized communities, peeling flesh and instant cremations.

Lawrence likely remembers the night better than others. It was the evening that more than 100 million people tuned in to watch “The Day After,” the made-for-TV movie depicting what nuclear war would look in the U.S. The story was based in Lawrence, and much of the filming was done here.

Jeff Daniels was 5 years old at the time, and his family gathered in his grandparents’ basement in Flushing, Queens, to watch the movie. He got shipped to bed before the bomb, but regardless, he never forgot the movie.

When he grew up to become a documentary filmmaker, he thought about it even more, and its place in the largely saccharine era of 1980s television.

“How the hell did they get away with putting a nuclear attack, a nuclear apocalypse in the American living room?” Daniels asked in a recent interview with the Journal-World. “I just kept wondering, how did it happen?”

So, he did what documentarians do. He made a film about it.

“Television Event” is that film, and it will get a special screening at 6:30 p.m. Monday at Liberty Hall in downtown Lawrence. The screening will include a panel discussion — both in person and via video — with Daniels, actor Steve Guttenberg, director Nicholas Meyer and other members of the production team to discuss the impact of “The Day After,” 40 years after its release.

photo by: Submitted

Promotional material for the documentary “Television Event” is shown.

Daniels is excited about the film, but particularly excited about this Lawrence screening.

“It has been a dream of mine to do this ever since I made the film,” Daniels said. “I wanted to screen this film in Lawrence that participated by the thousands to make ‘The Day After.'” Indeed, the filming of the movie was a big deal in Lawrence and throughout northeast Kansas. Many, many residents served as extras on the film, and a few as full-fledged actors.

A few local residents who were part of the movie — both in front of and behind the camera — will be a part of Monday’s panel. Ellen Moore, who played Jolene Dahlberg; Jack Wright, who was the local casting director; and David Longhurst, who was Lawrence’s mayor during that time, all will be on the panel.

Lawrence got its few minutes of fame from the movie 40 years ago, but it might get a little revival with the new documentary. Daniels told the Journal-World that a deal has been struck for “Television Event” to be aired on PBS stations across the country next year. Daniels said an airing date hasn’t yet been set, but is expected to be in the middle of 2024. He said to watch for announcements by PBS.

Daniels has high hopes for what the film can accomplish. One goal is simply for more discussion about nuclear war and its horrors. He said the prospect for nuclear war is discussed much less frequently in general society today than it was in the 1980s. He contends it is not because nuclear war has become less likely or less horrific. Instead, it has just become more complicated. In the 1980s, it was the U.S. vs the U.S.S.R., and the script almost wrote itself.

“In the 1980s, it was a good-versus-evil story that was pretty easy to follow and and didn’t require a lot of thought,” Daniels said. “Now, with nine countries with nuclear weapons, it is a far more complicated story.”

Daniels — and perhaps a few others — have noticed that American society doesn’t do very well at talking about complicated subjects that involve a lot of thought. That is a big issue in and of itself, and Daniels hopes “Television Event” shines some light on that subject too.

“I had climate change on my mind when I was making this film,” Daniels said. “What does it take to get people to turn their attention to and focus on something that is so indigestible that they would rather not think about it?

“I thought that ‘The Day After’ did that so well.”

“The Day After” is touted as the most-watched television movie of all time. More than 100 million people in 39 million households watched the movie on just that one November evening.

“You can’t get those numbers again,” Daniels said.

That’s another reason to make a film about the movie, he said. “The Day After” came before cable television really segmented the viewing public, and, of course, there were no streaming services because the Internet was mainly a military network that certainly wasn’t in the homes of ordinary Americans.

“The Day After” basically happened at a time when more people than ever had or ever would be watching network television. Daniels said that fact got him thinking about how do you create giant, shared emotional experiences in today’s world?

The Internet and social media are, of course, tools to do so. With those devices, you can actually reach more people than you could with 1980s network television, Daniels said. But you are not likely to reach them all at once, all in the same evening, creating a giant conversation around water coolers, schools, diners and everywhere else the next day.

“It seems that opportunity is lost to us now,” Daniels said.

But emotional storytelling of a grand scale shouldn’t be lost, he said, and neither should the opportunity to recognize how powerfully “The Day After” did it 40 years ago.

Daniels said people have maybe forgotten what the narrative about nuclear war was like prior to the movie. There were lots of American leaders who talked about winning a nuclear war.

After “The Day After,” not so much so.

“It changed a president’s rhetoric on nuclear war,” Daniels said of President Ronald Reagan. “For him to say a few weeks after the broadcast that a nuclear war should never be fought and can’t be won — that’s a pretty good result for an ABC Movie of the Week.”

photo by: Common Room Productions

Jeff Daniels


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