My favorite film from the 2021 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival was Television Event, Jeff Daniels’s retrospective about the making and impact of ABC’s television movie, The Day After.
By securing the participation of The Day After‘s director, writer, and producer, as well as cast members, Jeff Daniels ensures that Television Event will be a richly detailed art process documentary. And it is. But what makes the documentary particularly thought-provoking is the sociology of television itself. The film came at a time where the ubiquity of television’s reach was both taken for granted and not necessarily understood. Today, the thought that over half of all adults in American were watching the same movie at the time is hard to fathom.
One of the things that surprised me about the year-long COVID-19 sheltering was how little I missed live television. I had an abstract awareness that other than live sports, the television experience had become asynchronous. When those sports were interrupted, it was easy enough to see how streaming options had replaced broadcast options and “what is available?” had replaced “what is on?”
Towards the end, Television Event argues that movies matter. That they can make a difference. The documentary makes the claim that The Day After affected foreign policy, citing Ronald Reagan’s autobiography in which he confesses that the film depressed him. Did it impact him on a personal level to pursue arms reduction? Or were such acts political pragmatism because the American people spoke clearly through their responses to the unthinkable? Ultimately, it may not matter much since both are forms of influence.
The communal nature of film is celebrated as well. I remember waiting in line overnight for tickets to see the first show of Return of the Jedi in 1984. Within a few years, the proliferation of multiplexes made the “event” movie something markedly different. Weekend grosses were what mattered, and if more people had seen a film over the course of a few days, the difference between “during the same weekend” and “at the same time” was one that was felt more than understood. We are reminded here that Ted Koppel moderated a panel that included Henry Kissinger, Elie Wiesel, Carl Sagan, and Robert McNamara. It is hard to imagine any sort of event that would bring together such a panel for television. Today, each would be separately making the rounds of talk shows, yelling over each other or parroting partisan talking points rather than answering questions.
Paradoxically, the power of film lies not in mimetic imitation but in narrative encapsulation. Carl Sagan rightly points out that The Day After is an optimistic view of the impact of nuclear war. Despite how well researched the film was, its two biggest influences were not government studies but other movies. The famous survey of the wounded in Gone With The Wind is cited as a visual template for the film to convey the scope of devastation while not retreating into abstraction. More importantly, the film crew and extras were shown Hiroshima Mon Amour to understand the emotional impact of the events.
Today, there is despair about different problems — climate change, pandemics, political corruption — and about society’s ability to confront them honestly and speak about them meaningfully. How strange that the ultimate legacy of a film about nuclear war might be one of hope. The late, great theologian and writer Dallas Willard wrote in The Divine Conspiracy, “Sometimes important things can be presented in literature or art that cannot be effectively communicated in any other way.” Perhaps this has more to do with our willingness to listen than the intrinsic features of the art. Jesus often concluded his parables with the admonition that he would “ears to hear” should attend to meaning in the narratives. Is it possible that our problems haven’t changed so much as we have?
Slowly but surely around the country and around the world, our theaters are opening up and our cultural prophets will once again speak painful but necessary truths in the thin spaces between commercials and entertainments. As we return to them, let us strive to do so with ears to hear. Do movies make a difference? They have before — they can again.