Here in 2020, the idea that any bit of entertainment could capture the entire American viewing audience is laughable. We’re not only too segmented a society, we have so many options for what we choose to consume. The days of 100 million people watching anything are gone. A fraction of that is a smash hit. So, that element depicted in the documentary Television Event is from a bygone era, but it helps to serve a purpose. Only by being put out during the 1980s, during the Cold War, could something like The Day After have made its impact. Playing at DOC NYC this year, the movie showcases how this production may have played a part in averting nuclear war.
Television Event is a documentary that’s both about the making of a movie, as well as what that movie ultimately meant. While neither of the elements are full on successes, as depicted within the doc, they pique your interest just enough. The combined parts of the film end up raising it all up, helping to make the flick a minor victory.
The Day After, while a notable film, honestly isn’t a particularly strong work, especially when looked at today. However, at the time, it certainly caused a fuss. So, looking at it though modern eyes may leave you shrugging your shoulders. The ability of the documentary to bring you back to the 80s mindset is part of what makes the journey worth taking.
Centering on the making of and impact of television movie The Day After, the doc posits that the flick is one of the reasons why nuclear disaster was averted. Initially, we see the powers that be bringing together creatives, including a top director in Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). Meyer brings a desire to make a film that will end the Ronald Reagan Presidency. Almost as soon as production starts, Meyer butts heads with ABC, which is no surprise, considering the content. While the network is hoping to sell advertising, Meyer has much more in mind. Dailies show a slowly paced yet graphic work, briefly resulting in his firing, before being re-hired to oversee an arduous edit.
Once the movie is done and in the can, The Day After becomes a hot potato, causing controversy even before it airs. Once it does, people watch in incredible numbers, including Reagan himself. The discussion afterwards, instead of condemning a depressing TV movie, centers on how the real world can avoid the fate of the dramatized one. In that regard, the production ends up serving an even greater purpose than initially anticipated.
Director Jeff Daniels (no, not that one) is on firmer ground when depicting The Day After being made than when talking about it more in the abstract. Mainly, that’s from when cast members and those involved in the production speak about the toll it took on them. It feels tacked on and goes for cheap emotion. While the best elements of Television Event center on this unlikely project coming together, the least successful ones go in the other direction.
Television Event may well fascinate anyone without knowledge of The Day After and its story. Even if you do remember it, looking back on it and the impact it may well have had should be interesting. If Daniels misses a chance to consider the film itself more, he depicts its genesis and release fairly well. His documentary never reaches the level of something above and beyond, but like the movie within, it serves a noble purpose. As one of the more likely offerings at DOC NYC this year to cross over into the mainstream, it deserves a look. Give it a shot and see what you think.