Opening with some documentary style footage of American military guys talking really super serious while onboard an Strategic Air Command aircraft, the story then shifts to the lives of various simple Americans living their lives in the towns along the border of Kansas and Missouri. You got Jason Robards as doctor with a loving family; Steve Guttenberg as a student; JoBeth Williams as a nurse; John Cullum as the head of a family that lives on a large farm and John Lithgow as a professor. For 45 minutes or so, we're brought up to speed on these people's lives. The whole time there's various news reports playing in the background talking about the growing tensions with Russia. People are scared, but they go about their normal lives and then...BOOM! Nuclear missiles start flying out of the nearby silos and all Hell breaks loose. People start rioting and trying to get out of town, but before you can say "radioactive baboon balls" the Russian missiles reach their targets and it's "Goodbye, Kansas."
Everything blows the fuck up and the people that are left after the smoke clears are totally fucked up. Not as fucked up as the survivors in the next year's THREADS, but still screwed all the same. Radiation sickness, lack of food, lawlessness, no shelter from the elements, no more Netflix. It's Hell on Earth, but unfortunately since this is a made-for-network-TV movie we never see much more than a mass grave and unwashed people with their hair falling out. The story is dark, but the events shown on-screen are tame.
Still, it's a good movie and a very interesting glimpse into early 1980's American culture. Especially, if you go online and look for videos of all of the original commercial breaks shown during the original broadcast and then watch the ABC News special that showed immediately after the movie. Hosted by Ted Koppel and featuring Carl Sagan, then current Secretary of State George Shultz, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, William F. Buckley, Jr., former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, General Brent Scowcroft and Elie Wiesel. It's a fascinating watch and the one female audience members question (around the 45 minute mark) is even more important today than it was in 1983.
Above average acting (even by Steve Guttenberg), restrained script, mediocre direction, an unwed woman arguing with her teenage sister about her diaphragm, bland camerawork, cool explosion scenes (I loved the skeleton effects), disappointing ending. THE DAY AFTER isn't the best nuclear war movie ever, but it does play an interesting part in world history in that it helped bring attention to the subjects of nuclear war and nuclear winter. Definitely worth watching.
If you need me, I'll be in my fallout shelter wearing my Church of the Children of Atom robes and praying to Atom that HBO or Netflix will make a high-budget miniseries based on Robert McCammon's "Swan Song".
Maybe I'm giving the filmmakers too much credit, but when the silo doors opened up and the nuclear missiles started blasting off, they showed this white horse and it brought to mind how in the Bible, Revelation 6:1-2 says: "And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see. And I saw, and behold a white horse..."