Saturday, November 14, 2020

DOC NYC Spotlight: Television Event

I’m excited to be covering DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eleventh year, this time in a mostly online format, from November 11th-19th. 

Television Event
Directed by Jeff Daniels
Ticket Information

Movies tell stories, and for many, going to a theater or sitting down at home to watch something is the totality of the experience. In some instances, biopics or other historical productions may inspire further research, at the very least encouraging curiosity regarding what actually happened and what may have been exaggerated for cinematic value. In rarer cases, the circumstances surrounding the creation of the film itself are just as interesting as the finished product, capable of filling an almost equal runtime with a chronicle of what went into the project and just how it turned out the way it did.

In 1983, ABC aired “The Day After,” which was a three-hour made-for-TV movie about the detonation of a nuclear bomb and its effects on a Kansas town. Conceived in part as a sensational rebuke to the war-mongering policies of President Ronald Reagan, the movie, originally intended as a two-night miniseries, was plagued with controversy from its start. Its inception as a notion of executive Brandon Stoddard led to a rollercoaster development process that included an unruly director, Nicholas Meyer, intent on taking no notes from censors or anyone else, and a pre-air screening by Reagan that led to an international conversation about the horrific implications of nuclear war.

There is a great deal of hokeyness in the clips of “The Day After” that are screened throughout this documentary, and while there isn’t anything particularly dated about the journey to air, it is quite entertaining. Having the late Stoddard, who died in 2014, Meyer, writer Edward Hume, and producer Robert Papazian on camera to recount their memories is fantastic, interspersed with archive footage that shows them in the moment, now given the opportunity to reflect back on this wild experience. The time distance from the Cold War is helpful for reconsidering the value and potential danger of making this boundary-pushing telefilm.

This documentary doesn’t offer a definitive position on whether it was responsible to make “The Day After,” but probing the events that led to its airing and to the White House involvement is an absolutely worthwhile and completely engaging endeavor. It’s an extraordinary trip back in time to when families would gather around their televisions to watch something live and the idea of reruns or binge-watching streaming content wasn’t even a thought. The TV movie itself might not hold up too well after four decades, but reliving this rollercoaster is superb.


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