I don't mind propaganda movies for what they are, but if I'm to watch I need to be on the same page with their agenda. That's why I can't stand the likes of "Fahrenheit 911" or "Inconvenient Truth". That's why I absolutely adore "The Day After".
This was the only movie that ever lived up to the hype in my eyes. True, I was eleven then, but I've read about it in advance and it still managed to scare the living daylights out of me. Watching it now, 25 years after, I'm aware of the flaws, but it's still haunting.
The idea of nuclear holocaust is in a way so out of this world, when you consider normal problems normal people have living their normal everyday lives. So what if the world ends? I have a mortgage to repay... sick relative to look after... job to find... and so on. And that's where the movie starts. Much in the way of daytime drama, "the Day After" uses the structure of following various characters, residents of a small Kansas town, as they go about their everyday business. Some of them have career or marital choices ahead, big things are looking up. However, somewhere in the background, the evil is looming, through the means of newscast it's getting closer and closer. Tension and fear are more and more pronounced and eventually the Doomsday comes. A string of nuclear explosions over Kansas suddenly catapults survivors into the realm of surreal. Everything is either ruins or ash. Radiation silently kills everybody. Everything now is about survival and survival only, with no answer to "what for?". Government celebrates "a victory for democracy" and calls for rebuilding the nation, but nobody is left to respond. The movie ends anticlimactically, suggesting final extinction is just around the corner and all hope is gone for good... except for cockroaches.
No holds are barred in presenting what lies ahead for mankind if "fools sitting on the trigger" (as Eric Idle from Monty Python would say) have their way. Characters are shown no mercy. Some object that the presentation is mild (even the filmmakers acknowledge so) and the things in reality would be far worse. I wouldn't mind more graphic scenes (and I'm yet to watch "Traces"), but what's in there is - bad enough to consider.
Others have derided special effects. True, some small things could've been better (those atomic mushrooms look like they've been glued to the screen and we've seen archive footage from New Mexico tests a zillion times already), but what is presented is effective. The snapshots of people being incinerated and for a brief moment x-rayed against yellow background don't fail even today (although it is by no means a realistic portrayal and it may be spoofed easily).
Pacing is also an issue to some who deem the movie too slow and full of needless scenes. I found the pacing and the time devoted to introduction being precisely accurate. If it was any shorter it would've felt like "fast forward to the action". But there is no "action" to look forward to. In a way one even feels like giving those characters a little more time for whatever they were doing with their life because, mundane as it may be, it's still so much better than what lies ahead. Similar feeling I had watching "On the Beach" (another nuclear holocaust movie). Scenes after the bombs didn't drag too long. Remember, this is not just a brochure about how things may be, it's a film that wants to hammer its message down the throat. And it does. They deliberately took time to paint a couple of pictures of how survivors cope and struggle to see another day, attempt to clear the land and bury the dead and so on. And then make it clear that the struggle is to no end whatsoever. No glory of human spirit will overcome the mother of all disasters. Romanticism is the last hope and it dies too.
The only real flaw in my opinion is the choice of a lead actor. I don't think it's a serious issue, but they could've done better with someone other than Jason Robards. While he's good in support roles, his drooling jaw and obvious mugging for the camera aren't good features for someone who's supposed to carry the whole story. On the other hand, if the approach was to make the film look like a daytime drama, with Robards they were on the money. Luckily there were enough parallel stories and interesting characters for this not stick out.
The conclusion is pessimistic and it's rightfully so. Once the bombs go off, there's nothing much for you to hope for. The most useful thing one can learn from "The Day After" would be: if you find yourself in the city that is awaiting an inbound nuclear blast go outside and watch the show. Put on the sunglasses so you don't get blinded by the blitz.
Review by CherryBlossomBoy from the Internet Movie Database.