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|Written by||Donald Wrye|
|Theme music composer||Basil Poledouris|
|Country of origin||United States|
|Producers||John Lugar (co-producer)|
Richard L. O'Connor (producer)
Donald Wrye (executive producer)
Jacque Elaine Toberen
|Running time||870 minutes|
|Production company||ABC Circle Films|
|Budget||US $40 million (est.)|
|Original release||February 15 –|
February 22, 1987
Amerika is an American television miniseries that was broadcast in 1987 on ABC. The miniseries inspired a novelization entitled Amerika: The Triumph of the American Spirit. Amerika starred Kris Kristofferson, Mariel Hemingway, Sam Neill, Robert Urich, and a 17-year-old Lara Flynn Boyle in her first major role. Amerika was about life in the United States after a bloodless takeover engineered by the Soviet Union. Not wanting to depict the actual takeover, ABC Entertainment president, Brandon Stoddard, set the miniseries ten years after the event, focusing on the demoralized U.S. people a decade after the Soviet conquest. The intent, he later explained, was to explore the U.S. spirit under such conditions, not to portray the conflict of the Soviet coup.
Described in promotional materials as "the most ambitious American miniseries ever created," Amerika aired for 14½ hours (including commercials) over seven nights (beginning February 15, 1987), and reportedly cost US$40 million to produce. The miniseries was filmed in the Golden Horseshoe and southwestern Ontario Canadian cities of Toronto, London, and Hamilton, as well as various locations in the U.S. state of Nebraska – most notably the small town of Tecumseh, which served as "Milford", the fictional setting for most of the series. Donald Wrye was the executive producer, director, and writer of Amerika, while composer Basil Poledouris scored the miniseries, ultimately recording (with the Hollywood Symphony Orchestra) eight hours of music – the equivalent of four feature films.
Amerika has an indirect connection to another notable ABC program, the 1983 television film The Day After, which some critics felt was too pacifist for portraying the doctrine of nuclear deterrence as pointless. Stoddard cited a column in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner by Nixon speechwriter (and later, television personality) Ben Stein that appeared a few weeks before The Day After aired. Stein wrote, in part:
...since my dear friends at ABC-TV have made a TV movie very rightly describing the terror of an atomic attack on America, perhaps they might consider something else. Perhaps they might make a TV movie about why the people of the United States face such a dreadful risk. They might make a movie about what life in the United States would be like if we lived under Soviet domination. Here is the idea: Let's have a movie called "In Red America." It would be about a few days or weeks in the life of several American families after the Soviet Union had taken over America.
Stoddard acknowledged that Stein's remarks provided the inspiration for the series. Stein received a quitclaim fee for the idea and otherwise was not involved in the production of "Amerika". Originally envisioned as a four-hour made-for-TV movie entitled "Topeka, Kansas, U.S.S.R.", the project soon was expanded into a miniseries.
The storyline of Amerika primarily follows three political leaders:
- Devin Milford (played by Kris Kristofferson): a maverick politician before the Soviet occupation who ran for President in 1988 (in the novel, 1992), after the Soviet takeover began. Milford was placed in a prison camp for daring to speak the truth about the Soviet conquest; at the beginning of the miniseries, Devin is declared "rehabilitated" and released back into society into the custody of his father, who lives in the Nebraska county run by Peter Bradford.
- Colonel Andrei Denisov of the KGB (played by Sam Neill): the Soviet administrator for the American Central Administrative Area. He is romantically involved with actress Kimberly Ballard (played by Mariel Hemingway). Andrei's superior and mentor is General Petya Samanov (played by Armin Mueller-Stahl), the Soviet military leader in charge of the United States.
- Peter Bradford (played by Robert Urich): a county administrator in Nebraska who cooperates with the Soviets to create a better life for his community. He attracts the attention of the Soviet leadership because, while cooperative, he is independent and respected by his constituents. At the series' climax, the Soviets carve a new country called "Heartland" out of the Midwest, with Bradford as its "Governor-General."
Major female characters, in addition to Ballard, include Peter Bradford's wife, Amanda (played by Cindy Pickett), Devin Milford's ex-wife, Marion (played by Wendy Hughes), and most notably, Devin's sister Alethea (played by Christine Lahti), who at the outset is prostituting herself to the local occupation leader. "Alethea is the center," noted Donald Wrye. "She is a metaphor for America – not just phonically – and it is she who discovers her moral core through(out) the course of the series." Lara Flynn Boyle played Bradford's teenage daughter, Jackie.
The human drama of these characters intersects with the political intrigue of the Soviet plans for the breakup of the United States. Bradford, the pragmatist, clashes with Milford, the idealist; Bradford's wife is Milford's ex-girlfriend, who finds she still has feelings for Milford upon his release from the prison camp; Denisov appoints Milford's ex-wife, a powerful magistrate (and General Samanov's mistress), to serve as Bradford's deputy and assistant in Heartland; and Kimberly's renewed sense of U.S. pride ultimately affects her relationship with Denisov.
Towards the end of the 1980s, as the decline of the Soviet Union puts it in danger of losing the Cold War, the Soviet leadership makes a desperate gamble to rearrange the global balance of power. Four large thermonuclear weapons are detonated in the ionosphere over the United States. The resulting electromagnetic pulse (or EMP) destroys the nation's communications and computer systems, cripples the U.S. electrical grid, and affects any equipment that relies on computer technology, such as most late-model automobiles. With its ICBMs inoperative—and the National Command Authority unable to contact U.S. military forces abroad or their foreign allies in western Europe to launch a counterattack—the U.S. is forced to accept Soviet terms for surrender: unilateral disarmament, the end of the dollar as a reserve currency, and integration into the Soviet military/economic bloc. The United States quickly falls under Soviet military occupation under the command of Russian General Petya Samanov, and the U.S. President and U.S. Congress become mere figureheads for their Soviet overseers. Communications between the administrative areas have been cut off, and the damage to the electrical grid caused by the EMP attack has never been fully repaired.
The above events are implied in the miniseries, although never directly explained. The description is taken from the novelization of the miniseries, Amerika: The Triumph of the American Spirit by Brauna E. Pouns and Donald Wrye (Pocket Books, 1987), based on Wrye's screenplay.
In 1997, a decade after its defeat, the contiguous United States is occupied by a United Nations peacekeeping force, the United Nations Special Service Unit (UNSSU), composed primarily of Communist state forces. The UNSSU in Milford is under a command of an officer from East Germany, Major Helmut Gurtman (played by Reiner Schöne). UNSSU troops periodically engage in destructive combined arms training exercises which are deliberately intimidating to the local population.
Those Americans who engage in dissent are stripped of their privileges and sent to exile camps, where they are anathema to the Soviets and their fellow citizens. Association and communication with the exiles is prohibited and forbidden, although some risk their own remaining freedoms by offering humanitarian aid. Production quotas have been imposed, and foodstuffs rationed, with the surplus being shipped to the Soviet Union.
Against this background, Bradford ascends to the leadership as Governor-General of Heartland. He acts the part of a collaborator, hoping to reform the Soviet occupation from within with ideals of the old United States. Milford is released from the prison camp, hoping to be reunited with his children and fight to end the occupation and restore the United States. Denisov hopes to "salvage as much as possible" of the old U.S., while realizing that the U.S. essentially must cease to exist as a nation in order to appease the Soviet Union's leadership.
Climax and resolution
The Soviet leaders of the occupation are faced with the dual problem of keeping the U.S. pacified and convincing the Politburo that their fears of a revitalized U.S. are unfounded because the country can no longer pose a threat. The Politburo is not convinced, and considers exploding nuclear weapons over several unnamed U.S. cities as a warning to the U.S. people and to the world. Samanov and Denisov, both of whom want Soviet control of the United States to be relatively humane, are horrified by this idea.
At great personal risk, Samanov convinces the Soviet leadership to accept a compromise plan. The United States will be divided into "client states" such as Heartland. Additionally, members of the United States Congress will be executed if they refuse to dissolve the nation's government and disperse in peace. When Samanov asks the assembled Congress to disband the legislative body and dissolve the United States government, the members angrily refuse to do so. Samanov walks out of the House of Representatives chamber and his men begin firing into the crowd of legislators. All members of Congress are killed in the attack, along with the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Vice President. The United States Capitol building and the artwork in its rotunda are destroyed in a terrorist-style attack. After the act is carried out, Samanov surveys the damage and the dead bodies of the members of Congress. He then sits in the United States House of Representatives chamber and commits suicide.
In the final episode of the miniseries, Heartland has seceded from the United States, with other regions to follow within the next few weeks. Instead, Heartland soldiers and local militia attack the local UNSSU compound. There is talk of a "Second American Revolution" that could undermine the Soviet Union's plans to break up the United States. The miniseries ends on a downbeat note, Devin Milford is shown about to make a nationwide speech telling Americans to revolt against the Soviet Occupation, however, Milford is shot to death. It is unclear if he managed to make a nationwide broadcast calling on Americans to resist the breakup of the United States, but based on the ending, it appears that the United States ceases to exist as a nation and is broken up into several independent countries.
The Divided States of America
In this fictional timeline, the U.S. Congress divided the United States into multiple "administrative areas" in 1988, one year after the Communist takeover. These areas are intended to become polities modelled on the Soviet republics, joined together in a new North American Union. A map shown on screen reveals these administrative areas to be:
- California Special District: California, Nevada
- Western Semi-Autonomous: Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming
- Northwest: Oregon, Washington
- Southwest: Arizona, New Mexico
- North Central: Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
- Central: Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska (this is Peter Bradford's administrative area, and the territory which eventually becomes Heartland, with Omaha, Nebraska as its capital)
- South Central: Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas
- Southern: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi
- Mid-Atlantic: Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia
- Appalachia: Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia
- Ameritech: Indiana, the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania (presumably named after the phone company that serviced these areas)
- Northeastern: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont
In addition to these areas, Washington, D.C. comprises its own National Administrative District, South Florida is described by a character as the "Space Zone," and there is a passing reference to three "International Cities," one of which is San Francisco. Michigan is separated into two administrative regions, with the Lower Peninsula belonging to Ameritech, and the Upper Peninsula belonging to the North Central region. Alaska is described as never having been pacified, requiring continued engagement by Soviet troops, and there are pockets of armed resistance in the Rocky Mountains and in West Virginia. There is no mention of what has happened to Hawaii, or to U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam, and American Samoa.
The Rust Belt (presumably "Ameritech") faces its own special problems. Most of its advanced factory equipment was removed at the start of the occupation and taken to the Soviet Union. The region suffers 50% unemployment as a result, and its residents are not permitted to leave, except to volunteer for factory work in the Soviet Union, from which no one has yet returned.
Travel and communications between the various zones is heavily restricted, part of the "divide and conquer" plan of the Soviet occupation.
Communist occupation elsewhere
Both the novel and miniseries imply that the Soviet Union has conquered other countries after the U.S. coup (it can be surmised, for example, that the EMP which disabled U.S. technology also would have crippled Canada and Mexico, a minor character says that he and his wife fled East Germany for the United States and remarked that "the promised land [had] become worse than what [they] left", and Denisov says at one point that "we control most of the world").
In this new world, Fidel Castro heads what is now called "Greater Cuba", embracing most of the Caribbean and Latin America, and Taiwan has been absorbed into China. North Korea has conquered and occupied South Korea and Korea is united under Communist rule. A politician named "Mbele" heads the "Socialist Republic of Southern Africa" which also includes South Africa, "Barghout" is the leader of "Iraqistan" which includes present-day Israel and all of the Arab world in both the Middle East and North Africa. Eastern Europe is in a state of unrest, echoing the turmoil in the former United States. The Soviet leader mentions being stationed in England before being posted in America, implying that Western Europe is also under Soviet control, much like America.
The flag of the occupation is the pale blue United Nations flag, with crossed U.S. and Soviet flags superimposed on the sides. The U.S. flag is shown without its stars, and this flag is displayed during the "Lincoln Week" ceremonies. The standard U.S. flag is outlawed, although one scene shows a group of war veterans marching with the old U.S. flag upside down, this being a distress signal. The U.S. national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," also is outlawed, but this does not stop a group of citizens from singing it (haltingly at first) after the "Lincoln Week" parade.
Abraham Lincoln is included with Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin in propaganda. One of the signature scenes in the film is a twenty-minute, dialogue-free depiction of the celebration of "Lincoln Week" (a holiday replacing the Fourth of July), with both Lincoln and Lenin displayed on red banners that were most likely intended to be striking and startling to television audiences of the time.
A new Pledge of Allegiance is given by "rehabilitated" political prisoners upon release from the U.S. gulags. While the prisoners are told that they are free to refuse to make this pledge, the circumstances under which it is administered suggest otherwise. The pledge states:
I pledge my allegiance to the flag of the community of American, Soviet, and United Nations of the World, and to the principle for which it stands – a nation, indivisible with others of the Earth, joined in peace, and justice for all.
Social criticism and commentary
Although it aired only two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, Amerika implied that American apathy and an unwillingness to defend freedom on the part of many citizens made the Soviet takeover rather easy. At one point, a key Soviet official observes that their plans for conquering the United States succeeded far beyond their wildest dreams, because once the nation had been defeated, the U.S. turned inward, not caring about national issues, seeking only to retain a piece of the prosperity that had once been theirs. "[The Soviet coup] worked because you lost your country before we ever got here," says the Soviet leader. "You had political freedom, but you lost your passion [...] How could we not win?"
This theme is echoed by Devin Milford later in the film:
Nobody wanted to risk anything for anybody else. Everybody was afraid they were going to lose what they had. They knew it was bad. They were just afraid it'd get worse. That's all they lived for – for things not to get worse.
Further dialogue, by politician Peter Bradford, lashes out at apathetic U.S. attitudes:
Damn, I'm so tired of this "I'm an American" bull! Where was all that patriotism when it counted? Where was that willingness to sacrifice? Nobody wanted to join the damn army to defend the country unless they got paid well! Nobody wanted to give any time to public service unless they could make a career out of it! And I didn't notice a lot of us giving up our lives in the last 10 years!
A speech delivered by one child (Devin Milford's son) demonstrates the extent of Soviet indoctrination in the new U.S.:
We are the voice of the new generation. We are the voice of the new people. The destructive ways of the past are gone. We will replace them with our vision of the future. The Party will lead us to the new age. There have been those who have tried to stop the new age. They are the corrupt reminder of the past. They have tried to confuse us with the idea that the old America was a good country. We know that lie. History teaches us that lie. We are grateful to our Soviet brothers who saved the world from destruction, and we can now join them in a world of socialist brotherhood. Everyone will go to school, everyone will have a job, everyone will be equal. No one will exploit or be exploited, and all those who oppose this wonderful vision will be crushed.
General Samanov sums up the futility of the hypothetical Soviet domination:
When you lose and fail, that is understandable; but when you win and fail--that brings madness.
The first two nights of Amerika garnered big ratings, but audience numbers dropped thereafter, and the overall miniseries averaged a 19 rating and a 29 share of American television households, compared to a 46 rating/62 share for The Day After. "It wasn't as big a hit as its supporters had hoped," said Ted Koppel, "but it wasn't a disaster, either." Amerika was the second-highest rated miniseries of the 1986–87 U.S. television season.
Although a 35 share reportedly had been promised to advertisers, Stoddard was happy with the performance of Amerika, claiming that all or part of the miniseries had been watched by 100 million people – a ratings bonanza for ABC, then in third place among the three major networks.
Amerika received mixed reviews; the series created controversy with some. Certain critics and viewers felt it was too long and unrealistic, others argued that it would be damaging to Soviet-American relations, and a spokesperson for the United Nations objected to it being portrayed as an occupying force under Soviet control. Some conservatives felt that Soviet brutality was greatly underplayed; conversely, a number of liberals dismissed the entire miniseries as right-wing paranoia. At various points, the program was scrapped, delayed, and rewritten. Prior to the show's airing, several left-wing magazines, including The Nation, The Progressive, Tikkun and Mother Jones carried articles strongly criticizing Amerika. The American Friends Service Committee also protested against Amerika.
For its part, the Soviet Union threatened to shut down the ABC News Moscow bureau, although this threat was not carried out and indeed seemed to strengthen ABC's resolve regarding the miniseries."We’re going to run that program come rain, blood, or horse manure," said ABC president John B. Sias, after the yet-to-be-aired Amerika had generated more controversy and viewer response than any other ABC program in history, including The Day After.
Amerika was preceded by an ABC special addressing the considerable controversy prior to its airing (The Storm Over Amerika), and was followed by an "ABC News Viewpoint" panel discussion moderated by Ted Koppel, with Brandon Stoddard, Donald Wrye, and others addressing the issues along with questions and comments from a live studio audience in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
After seeing the first episode and reading the shooting script, Tom Engelhardt stated that Amerika had "a plot line that makes suspension of disbelief into an act of grace." In its summary of the 1986–87 US television season, TV Guide called the miniseries "arguably the most boring miniseries in a decade," adding that "ABC's Amerika tried to hold America hostage for seven tedious nights (and a stupefyingly dull 14½ hours) by conjuring up a fuzzy vision of a Communist occupation of the U.S."
Amerika has not been shown on U.S. television since its original telecast on ABC. A VHS box set of the miniseries was released by Anchor Bay Entertainment in 1995, but no official DVD release is available. Portions of the soundtrack by Basil Poledouris were released on CD by Prometheus Records in 2004 (in a limited edition of 3,000 copies). The novelization is widely available from used-book sellers and online auction sites. The miniseries itself can be found pirated on YouTube.
In February 1987, the miniseries was parodied on the NBC show Saturday Night Live as "Amerida," in which a debt-ridden United States is mortgaged to Canada and subsequently repossessed. It posited Wayne Gretzky as the Prime Minister of Amerida. The U.S. protagonist (played by Canadian actor Phil Hartman) longs for a country "where you don't have money that's all the colours of the rainbow" and "you can spell words like colour and flavour without a 'u'." To calm him down, his wife makes the offer of a beer: "How about a Labatt's, eh?" The flag of "Amerida" was the U.S. flag with the stars replaced by a white maple leaf.
- Guy Lometti, "Amerika", in Horace Newcomb, Encyclopedia of Television. London, Routledge, 2005. ISBN 9781135194727 (pp. 104–5)
- The old South Street campus of Victoria Hospital in London, Ontario, was the site that depicted the "Peoples' Acceptance Hospital" in Omaha, in what the storyline refers to as the former U.S. state of Nebraska.
- "List of Films shot in Hamilton, Ontario". IMDb. Amazon. Retrieved January 29, 2008.
- The New York Times: "TV VIEW; 'AMERKIA' (sic) – SLOGGING THROUGH A MUDDLE" By John J. O'Connor. Published February 15, 1987
- Samanov's shoulder boards indicate a rank of Colonel General.
- (Three or more parts.) TV Guide magazine, June 27–July 3, 1987, issue #1787. All figures are based on the Nielsen ratings. The rating represents the percentage of the 87.4 million TV households tuned to a station (sets watching this show). The share represents the percentage of TV sets tuned to a television station at the time of the broadcast (sets in use).
- Tom Engelhardt, "The Winds of Snore". In These Times, February 11, 1987 (pp. 21,24).
- TV Guide, June 27–July 3, 1987, issue #1787
- Amerida!, YouTube, 5 January 2011