DOC NYC 2020 Review: “Television Event” Captures the Weight of When the World Was Watching

Recently there was some storm und drang leading up to the broadcast of “The Comey Rule,” a miniseries that received more attention for writer/director Billy Ray’s insistence that it air before the presidential election than it seemed to when it ultimately aired. No doubt Ray, one of the most intelligent screenwriters we have, thought he could have an impact on the race to the White House, but the likelihood that a show on one of hundreds of channels of television in a world with thousands of alternatives for entertainment would break through, no matter how well made, was minimal. In that sense, “Television Event” directed by Jeff Daniels (not the one that starred as the former FBI director in “The Comey Rule”) feels as if it’s from another era, a time when for as many faults as could be found with a monoculture that excluded a variety of voices could focus attention like nothing else when there were just three major networks with no other distractions than ad breaks.

This put enormous power in the hands of Brandon Stoddard, the ABC exec in charge of programming the network’s movie of the week and while he could’ve churned out frothy entertainment such as “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” unquestioned, the knowledge of a captive national audience actually pushed him towards more provocative material, leading him to take interest in a nuclear holocaust-themed miniseries at the height of U.S.-Soviet Cold War tensions during the early ‘80s. In the years since, “The Day After” has taken on an aura like Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds,” but Daniels simultaneously demystifies it and somehow adds to its legend in showing how difficult it is to execute something of import even when internal support for such a bold project is there.

“Television Event” is smartly structured as a baton pass between the creators behind the TV special where the interviews of writer Ed Hume, producer Bob Papazian, director Nicholas Meyer and associate producer Stephanie Austin, among others, subtly emphasize how “The Day After” gained momentum as it moved through the creative process, with each individual contribution challenging and building upon what came before. While some, such as Meyer and Hume, were more politically motivated than others when the recent election of Ronald Reagan signaled potential nuclear proliferation towards the Soviet Union, all involved were operating with a sense of purpose that seems almost Pollyannaish today, clearly grappling with the responsibility to the seriousness of the subject matter which had been all but taboo at the time while making engaging entertainment for a mass audience.

Whereas it isn’t unusual for the subjects of a behind-the-scenes doc to scrutinize every detail of a film, “Television Event” cultivates the understanding that each one of these details mattered they knew the world would be watching – not only the final product, but as the production drew attention from the White House. There is some backroom drama in Meyer, who had just come off of directing “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan,” adjusting to the demands of directing for the small screen with network standards and practices, quickly putting him at loggerheads with ABC’s Vice President of Motion Pictures Stu Samuels, but “Television Event” concerns itself mostly with what they put ultimately put in front of the cameras, tracking the 24-day shoot in Lawrence, Kansas where locals were enlisted to simulate their worst nightmare. The limited circle of interviewees that Daniels pursues yields particularly strong results when discussing the film with Ellen Moore, a local teen who was cast in the film and was made to pretend to envision what it would be like if her entire fifth grade class was vaporized by a nuclear attack.

Still, for a contemporary audience, the unthinkable isn’t the aftermath of a nuclear strike in “Television Event,” but rather the impact such a film could have on the national conversation and a moment when there was less energy expended on fighting to get the public’s attention than to make something worth their time. Thankfully, “Television Event” is cut from the same cloth as its subject, passionately demonstrating how there’s room in even the most arcane of infrastructures to move the needle and becomes a celebration of art revealing truths that can find it hard to cut through any other way.

“Television Event” will be available to stream through DOC NYC from November 11th through 19th.

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