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REVIEW: Hollywood attacks the arms race ( _Testament_ and _The Day After_)

anon — December 1983


Directed by Lynne Littman, starring Jane Alexander and William Devane. Paramount 1983.

The Day After

Starring Jason Robards. ABC-TV film aired on November 20.

Reviewed by Jon Spencer

Hollywood is going gangbusters on the subject of nuclear war.

There’s only one problem. A realistic view of nuclear war would go something like this:

Audience takes their seats, and the lights are dimmed. Credits roll. Several blinding flashes of light. Credits roll. House lights go up, audience leaves.

This doesn’t make for a very exciting film. Documentary producers have developed a nice way of dealing with this problem. Peter Watkins’ brilliant film __The War Game_ examined the effects of a single nuclear explosion, dramatising what would happen in that blinding flash and shortly thereafter. In effect, he dramatised the scenario Dr. Helen Caldicott would later describe in the lecture upon which If You Love This Planet is based. The makers of _Dark Circle _chose to look instead at the effects of the existing arms race. These films don’t reach the mass audience “Hollywood” films reach partly because they are too realistic, and partly because they say things. Hollywood thinks it cannot.

But Hollywood shies away from the documentary approach to nuclear war. The new Hollywood releases and television films all fit into one or more of the “normal” categories: Drama, thriller, comedy, etc. Consequently, they fail as often as they succeed. Major film studios have adopted a curious way of not alienating their audience. They seem to have decided that they cannot make any “political” statements in their films. Since everybody would agree that nuclear war is bad, that is not a political issue. To avoid making a political statement, what they must do is avoid saying why the war ever happened.

Paramount’s entry, Testament, _is merely the latest attempt to struggle with nuclear extermination as the starting point for a script. Because one cannot make a full-length feature film at ground zero, the makers of _Testament chose to situate the film in the countryside, where victims would die slowly instead of being vaporised.

However, that’s almost the whole plot. We watch people die for 90 minutes, then the lights go on again. There are no survivors, but some people live longer than others, and the result is “drama.”

Testament is painful to watch, but not because it is a tremendous film. The pace of the story is much like a Dallas script, and the acting veers toward melodrama. The film merely stimulates the fear and horror every human feels about nuclear war. It doesn’t however, make the connection between the arms race and the conflagration that is its logical conclusion. It says, as if this were news, that nuclear war is bad.

The astonishing fact is. that The Day After made some of these logical connections. The media extravaganza that preceded the airing of the TV special focussed on the film’s graphic portrayal of the horrors of nuclear war. Viewers knew they would see scenes of mass murder. What they didn’t expect was the film’s portrayal of nuclear war as likely.

The scenario depicted in the film is quite plausible: The Soviet Union makes a conventional assault on Western Europe, partly due to Pershing II and cruise deployment, and NATO responds accordingly. Someone, it doesn’t matter who, escalates the conflict to the nuclear stage;. and ‘- each side begins .the countdown to Armageddon.

An army man, in trying to convince a superior officer that they can stop going by the book, delivers one of the film’s most important messages — The war is over before the missiles have even reached their targets. There is no winner in a nuclear exchange. The real war Was the arms race — the “Cold” War. The real war was fought against the eventuality of nuclear conflict. The nuclear war was the result of the Cold War, and the conventional Soviet assault was simply the trigger that pushed the arms race on to its inevitable conclusion.

This is a message “Hollywood” films have avoided giving the public until now and such a stand must be applauded.

If, however, ABC had merely aired the film, and left it at that, it would have had limited success. Instead, they chose to portray the film as the beginning of a new stage of public awareness. The film ended with a list of recommended readings, and was. followed by fairly articulate debates on the issues raised by the film and by the arms race in general. The final message was clear to all — dogmatic faith and apathy will be the causes of a nuclear conflict, and the people have a responsibility to inform themselves and to come to some educated conclusions — whatever those might be. This may be the most important message the North American people have ever heard.