This documentary gives hope amid rising fears of nuclear war

Screenshot from “The Day After,” a 1983 ABC TV movie about the ravages of nuclear war in a small Kansas city.

Earlier this week, the United Nations issued a dire warning that intensifying geopolitical tensions and an escalating global arms race are dramatically accelerating the risks of nuclear war and global annihilation.

“There is one path — and one path only — that will vanquish this senseless and suicidal shadow, once and for all,” said António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations. “We need disarmament now. When each country pursues its own security without regard for others, we create global insecurity that threatens us all.”¹

The UN’s warning comes amid mounting outrage that the Biden administration, rather than leading a global effort to re-start nuclear-disarmament negotiations with Russia, is amping up the arms race by plowing ahead with a $1.2 trillion-plan to re-build the U.S. arsenal and develop an entirely new generation of nukes, including an unthinkably destructive “gravity bomb.”²

While it may be tempting to view these developments as cause for despair, a riveting new documentary about a remarkable TV movie that forced U.S. and Soviet leaders to the negotiating table at the height of the Cold War provides reason for hope.

Television Event, from award-winning filmmaker Jeff Daniels, tells the unlikely and inspiring story of the making of The Day After, a harrowing 1983 TV movie about an apocalyptic nuclear strike on the U.S. that was watched by over 100 million Americans and helped inspire historic arms-control agreements between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Television Event is now streaming on Kanopy through universities and public libraries, and is available for educational use through MEF on other digital platforms.

At once darkly funny and deadly serious, Television Event is an ideal resource for educators and activists looking to raise awareness about the catastrophic risks of nuclear war, the madness of current nuclear deterrence policy, and what it will take to change course. Ideal for courses that focus on American history, militarism and war, U.S. politics, political communication, cultural studies, media studies, and media production.

(1) “Nuclear Warfare Risk at Highest Point in Decades, Secretary-General Warns Security Council, Urging Largest Arsenal Holders to Find Way Back to Negotiating Table,” UN Press Release, March 18, 2024.
(2) “Why the Biden administration’s new nuclear gravity bomb is tragic,” by Stephen Young, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 13, 2024. 


“This absorbing documentary returns us to an extraordinary moment in the politics and popular culture of 1980s America … Fast-paced and gripping, Television Event explores not only the story behind The Day After’s unlikely production and its searing impact on television viewers, but also its influence on Ronald Reagan himself, who pivoted from endorsing the idea of a limited nuclear war to the realization that such a war must never come to pass. A powerful film about how culture can shape history.”
— Natasha P. Zaretsky, author of Radiation Nation: Three Mile Island and the Political Transformation of the 1970s

Television Event is a compelling account of a unique moment of intersection in the history of American entertainment and US foreign policy. It shows how a small group of storytellers dramatized the reality of nuclear war and rallied a country and its president to embrace change. Moving in its own right, Television Event deserves a wide audience and a place in contemporary discussion of how entertainment should respond to the global challenges of our times.”
— Nicholas J Cull, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

“At a time when fears of international conflicts escalating to nuclear war are again rising, Television Event delivers a powerful reminder of how a controversial 1983 movie galvanized many Americans and helped to move the United States and the Soviet Union away from the brink of a dangerous confrontation. “The Day After” became a classroom topic across America in the early 1980s. It deserves to be discussed in classes again today, and Television Event offers a much-needed spur.”
— David Foglesong, Professor of History at Rutgers University and author of The American Mission and the “Evil Empire”

“An absolutely riveting, highly entertaining and important story of the 1983 ABC TV movie, The Day After. … This documentary is not only a remarkable, often oddly funny, look at the broadcast network machinations at the time, but also a game-changing show business event that directly affected then-President Ronald Reagan and his whole attitude towards the possibility of a nuclear holocaust.”
—Deadline Hollywood

“A blast. Witty, moving, and engaging … Taps into the heightened anxiety over U.S.-Soviet tensions, the growing nuclear stockpiles that went with them, and the response of the Reagan administration to The Day After’s anti-nukes message.”
—The Hollywood Reporter

“A riveting study of a landmark film. … The documentary examines the influence of The Day After, with Reagan screening it at Camp David, profoundly shaken by the viewing experience, helping to change his vision for a catastrophic arms race with the Soviet Union. And there’s the national conversation the endeavor created, unthinkable in this day and age, inspiring global awareness of a horrific issue. Television Event is a crisply made reminder of such an incredible feat of dramatic power and programming bravery.”

“As entertaining as it is profound … a gem of an historical document. Amazing to think, in our current age of social media, that TV mattered in such a way. But it did, and thanks to Daniels and his marvelous Television Event, we see the evidence. Lights, camera, boom!”
—Hammer to Nail