Review by Sean Boelman
The Day After has a place in film history as one of the most influential and talked-about made-for-television movies, and Jeff Daniels’s documentary Television Event explores the context that allowed it to reach that point. The level of detail with which Daniels tells this story can be a bit intimidating at times, but cinephiles and history buffs will undoubtedly find themselves intrigued.
The documentary offers an in-depth behind-the-scenes look at the making of the ABC movie of the week The Day After and a discussion of how the movie reflected and affected the political climate of the time. Some of the information is already going to be known by well-read viewers, like Reagan’s admiration of the film, but the extent to which this seemingly small television movie impacted the world is frequently surprising.
Some of the most interesting moments of the documentary are those which discuss the censorship that really took hold during that era. Although there are plenty of movies that deal with this issue in terms of obscene content, it is interesting to see something explore how censorship of political opinions was also a problem during this era of paranoia and fear.
Part of what makes The Day After such an interesting case is that, unlike a majority of other political films that came out at the time, it wasn’t overt propaganda. Writer Edward Hume wanted to write a script that didn’t lean towards either side of the conflict, instead emphasizing the human cost that nuclear war would have on everyone.
That said, this documentary fails to adequately capture the other thing that made The Day After so special, and that is the emotional strength it had. A few interviews with cast members explain how the difficulty of the material really began to weigh on them, but a lot of the behind-the-scenes material focuses more on how the production drew the community in which it was filmed together in a more joyous way.
Daniels structures his documentary in a mostly straightforward manner, tracing the story of The Day After from conception to release, with a majority of the emphasis being placed on the production and broadcast of the film. It’s obviously going to be most compelling for those with an interest in television history or Cold War politics, but at just ninety minutes, it can hold most viewers’ attention pretty easily.
The documentary makes pretty extensive use of archive materials and clips from the film and the news programs that accompanied it, but the star of the show here are the interviews. Of course, the higher-profile people involved with the production, like Steve Guttenberg or John Lithgow, are absent, but Meyer’s commentary on the shoot is particularly insightful.
Television Event is an absolute must-see for anyone who has an appreciation for the history of broadcast. It’s both informative and interesting despite covering a story that most of the target audience will already know about to some extent.
Television Event is now streaming as a part of the 2020 DOC NYC festival, which runs November 11-19, 2020.