Tuesday, April 19, 2011

CULT-TV MOVIE REVIEW: Special Bulletin (1983)


Many folks of my generation still vividly recall the first prime-time broadcast of the grim TV movie, The Day After (1983).  That landmark tele-film, directed by Nicholas Meyer, gazed at life in the American heartland immediately following a devastating nuclear exchange.

So powerful in imagery and so bleak in narrative, The Day After actually altered the course of real-life international politics.  After watching the TV-movie, President Reagan re-committed himself to peace with the Soviet Union, a strong shift away from the "we start bombing in five minutes"/"Evil Empire"-rhetoric of his young administration.

Although not as widely remembered as The Day After, another TV-movie of 1983 also dealt powerfully with the issue of nuclear annihilation.  On March 20, 1983, NBC aired a startling program from director Edward Zwick entitled Special Bulletin that -- despite a disclaimer -- presented itself as an authentic news broadcast.   In other words, Special Bulletin was the TV equivalent of Orson Welles' notorious 1938 War of the Worlds radio presentation.

Special Bulletin commences innocuously with an advertisement for the (fictional) RBS Network, replete with its catch-phrase, "we're moving up!"  In the middle of the advertisement for game shows and soap operas, the screen goes to static and the title "Special Bulletin" pops up.  Suddenly, we're in a bustling network news room following a breaking story in Charleston, South Carolina.

Specifically, a small tug boat has pulled into the Port of Charleston and is carrying aboard her a group of American terrorists.  After a shoot-out with dock security, a reporter and his cameraman are captured by the terrorists and taken hostages aboard the ship, the Liberty May.  The terrorists promptly request a direct feed to RBS, so they can make their demands known to the world at large.

After very little discussion, RBS agrees to the terrorists' terms. and soon the leader of the group, Bruce Limon (The Thing's David Clennon) speaks. 

According to his wishes, the U.S. will turn over 968 warhead detonators in its nuclear arsenal, or the terrorists will explode a home-made nuclear bomb in Charleston, effectively destroying the city and all of its people. 

Limon, we soon learn from the news reporters,  is a former Pentagon official who is upset at the hard-right shift in American policy to the belief that nuclear war is winnable.  Along with a brilliant physicist, Dr. McKeeson (David Rasche), Limon believes that nuclear blackmail is the only option left to save the planet from itself.  He plans to illustrate "what we all have to fear," should his attempt at unilateral disarmament be rejected.

Without even the smallest hint of fakery or artifice, Special Bulletin structures itself as a real news program of the epoch, right down to communication glitches, infrequent bursts of static, shaky-images and the occasional dopey remark from a reporter or anchor-person.   As RBS news anchors John Woodley (Ed Flanders) and Susan Miles (Kathryn Walker) monitor the crisis, as nuclear terrorism becomes"stark reality," we are asked to follow the story down blind alleys, countenance talking head blowhards, and detect truth in a multitude of conflicting images, all rendered on (appropriately) cheap-looking video.  The presentation of the story is truly pitch-perfect, in large part due to excellent supporting performances by the likes of Christopher Allport, Lane Smith and a very young Michael Madsen.  Nobody show-boats and no one has a really substantive role, either.  These are just "reporters on the street" and interviewees, reacting to events as they unfold.  A perfect ensemble piece.

Occasionally the news anchors in Special Bulletin cut back to the live feed to watch events spiral out of control aboard Limon's ship, but they also consult experts on nuclear technology, and check in with reporters at the F.B.I Headquarters, the Pentagon, and on Capitol Hill.  It's an effective, whip-smart presentation in a mock-documentary-style, and one that reportedly had quite a few Americans (especially in the South) wondering if the film could possibly be the real thing.   I remember that at school the day after Special Bulletin first aired, all of my friends were talking about it and also the film's absolutely take-no-prisoners approach to storytelling.

As Special Bulletin continues into the story's second day and it is confirmed that McKeeson and Limon indeed have an operational nuclear bomb, an evacuation of Charleston commences.  A countdown clock ticks down the minutes till 6:00 pm, the time when the terrorists have threatened to detonate their weapon.  Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, politicians dither about "negotiating with terrorists" and argue about whether an accommodation can or should be reached.

The last fifteen minutes of the film involve a government ruse to appease the terrorists, and a bloody assault by U.S. soldiers on the Liberty May.  The terrorists are put down effectively, but the bomb still ticks down towards destruction.   Then, terror follows short-lived relief.  In the last few moments of the film, something truly unthinkable occurs, and in a weird, unsettling way, Limon's point about the hazards of nuclear weapons is made.  We see exactly what we have to fear in the event of a nuclear exchange.

Today, it's almost impossible to watch Special Bulletin without thinking of the harrowing events we've seen on the nightly news since 2001. 

For instance, the evacuation of Charleston goes poorly, and one local reporter goes into detail about how the city's plans were not detailed enough, and did not take into account traffic congestion and other problems.  This seems very much reminiscent of what our country witnessed during and after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

But in general, what Special Bulletin gets so dead-on accurate is the horrifying sense of chaotic life spontaneously unfolding before our eyes, out-of-control, on the TV as our journalists and "experts" try to play catch-up in a game of TV ping-pong. 

You will remember (all too much, I'm afraid...) this tense dynamic from that horrific Tuesday morning in September, 2001.  I suppose the feeling is roughly analogous to what seem people call the"fog of war:" False reports come to light, and even though we're watching events unfold live, we hesitate to believe our eyes that such a thing can happen here, in the United States.  I still remember listening to radio reports on 9/11 that the National Mall was on fire, and that Air Force One was imperiled.  Neither of those things were actually true, but in the heat of the moment, reporters (and listeners and viewers) believed the reports.  Fact only became plain much, much later (and is, in fact, still debated by many).

Thematically, Special Bulletin boasts two primary concerns.  The first involves the media itself.  How complicit is the media, the film asks, in creating and extending situations like the one depicted here?  In the film, RBS gives over a live feed to the terrorists, an act which gives their demands a national audience, and which spurs panic in the citizenry.  There's something to be said for that argument that had Limon and McKeeson not been given access to television, their plan would have failed rather dramatically.  Or at the very least, the situation would have developed far more slowly, and allowed for a more reasoned response by the government.  The movie explicitly raises a question about the role of the press: is it a witness to this story, or part of the story, or both?

More than that even, the film looks at the way TV networks package and "sell" crises for higher ratings.  Here, a colorful logo -- wrapped in stars and stripes -- pops up that reads "Flashpoint: America Under Siege." The logo even comes with its own dramatic theme song.  Although the news people are undeniably presented as heroic and straightforward in the film itself, there's also an undercurrent here; the uncomfortable feeling that RBS is riding this crisis all the way to the bank, with "exclusive" control of the live feed and a direct line to the action.  At one point, McKeeson points this out to John Woodley, asking why RBS hasn't shared the feed with the other networks.

The end of Special Bulletin delivers a one-two punch  that is hard to shake.  After the nuclear bomb detonates and Charleston is no more, there is a period of mourning -- 3 days to be exact -- on RBS before the media begins to seek news stories elsewhere.   This is, perhaps, the tele-film's sharpest and most incendiary insight.   There's always more grist needed for the mill, and that fact is even more true today, in the age of cable television and the 24-hour news cycle than it was in the 1980s.   We move willy-nilly from crisis to crisis, from Balloon Boy to Sideshow Donald, without taking a breath because we have to be worried about something -- anything -- all the time. 

Don't touch that dial!  America Under Siege, indeed.

The second thematic concern of Special Bulletin involves, pretty clearly, the colossal danger of nuclear weapons. 

The "terrorists" in the film are actually concerned citizens who nonetheless cross the line and can't see how they have let their ideology blind them.   They are hypocrites, threatening to destroy innocent people with nukes because the government can't see how dangerous nukes are to innocent people. 

Long story short, you can't preach peace by threatening force. 

And the government is culpable in all of this too.  Attempting to look strong and resolute, the President and his people first attempt to dismiss the terrorists as hoaxers, and then seeks to trick and manipulate them, finally overtaking them by force.  The government experts never acknowledge or seem to believe Dr. McKeeson's all-too-sincere testimony that he has protected the bomb with an "anti-tamper" device.  The government, essentially, plays a high-stakes game with the city of Charleston...and loses the gamble.

The message encoded in Special Bulletin is that nukes as deterrents or nukes as weapons are much too dangerous to trifle with, for ideologues in any party.  Why?   Purely and simply because the destruction caused by nuclear weapons is immense, beyond our worst imagining.  In Special Bulletin, Charleston is destroyed -- rendered a desert -- and a whole swath of South Carolina will remain uninhabitable for years to come following the detonation.  And that's just the result of one nuke.  Imagine America's arsenal of 968 warheads in action, and the kind of devastation it could render.  This is destruction on a Biblical scale, and we would be fools to forget that fact.  The final scenes of the film, set in a burning Charleston, with reports of "people burned beyond recognition" are the stuff or real nightmares.

One part a critique of the news business as show business, and one part a blunt-faced look at the terrifying power of nuclear weapons, Special Bulletin remains a blazing, unforgettable viewing experience.  As far as mock-documentary films go, it's deftly-presented, and will leave you pondering, among other things, our strange, self-destructive nature.   

Not only are we fully capable of destroying ourselves, it seems.  We actually want front row seats to the show.

8 comments:

  1. It's the little things that this movie gets so right that have stuck with me down through the years. Not just the rhythm of around-the-clock "crisis coverage" (and its strange to think how little has changed since this movie was made, back at the dawn of 24-hour news) and the occasional awkward comments from the anchors (who are, of course, "winging it") but the gem of a reaction from one of the members of the bomb squad when he realizes that the nuke is going to go off - he runs for it. Like he's gonna outrun a nuclear explosion? It's a hair-raisingly human reaction.

    Excellent insight as always. I'd forgotten this came out at the same time as "The Day After" (it's a lot better IMHO).

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  2. I remember being absolutely stunned when the nuclear device went off. In those days, TV always shied away from presenting things that were too disturbing. You almost expected that kind of security blanket from TV. Everything is worked out in the end. Here, we were given no such solace.

    This was not too long after the Iran hostage crisis and the Reagan assassination attempt, so the visual commentary on live TV news was quite clear and darkly humorous. One of network TV's finer efforts.

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  3. Anonymous12:04 PM

    Wow. Great article John. I remember watching this as a young teen. A great movie and I agree with the above poster that the scariest scene is when the bomb squad guy gives up and runs away right at the end. Love your blog, you should review The Last Broadcast next.

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  4. JKM:
    Another thoughtful essay—heck, man, lately you’re batting 1.000!

    I saw this the night it was aired, and never forgot it—even though I didn’t see it again until this year when I bought the DVDR from the Warners archive. And it not only still really held up, but was basically prescient about the way “news” would become.

    For me, Special Bulletin really succeeds because of, as you mentioned, that “absolutely take-no-prisoners approach to storytelling,” and then that it is willing to go the distance and show how the G-ment “loses the gamble.”

    I always thought “Special Bulletin” and “Threads” (have you reviewed that? I snooped around your site, but didn’t see one…) were infinitely better than “The Day After,” which was not only too glossy and self-pitying, but really poorly put together both in story and production values.

    Thanks,
    Ivan

    PS: Are you related to John Muir (1838-1914), the naturalist?

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  5. John,
    You bring back some memories here. I taped the broadcast when I was sixteen (and a certified VHS tapehead)and I recorded the broadcast, later dubbing it to remove the disclaimers that came as buffers before commercial breaks. When my Grandfather visited a few days later I played it and kept annoying and distracting him. He raised his voice and told me "This is serious". I got him! Kept him fooled for over an hour (he didn't have access to cable at the time so had no clue this wasn't a real network news program). Finally my Mom spoiled it all, but I was proud of my prank. Four years later I got to tell director Edward Zwick the tale at a premiere of his film Glory. He loved the story!

    Thanks for puttin it back on my radar.

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  6. Hi everybody,

    Great memories and thoughts about the powerful and ahead-of-its time Special Bulletin.

    DLR: I'm so glad you mentioned that "human reaction," the guy running away from Ground Zero, as if he can get to any kind of minimum safe distance. It's chilling, it's funny, and you're right, it feels absolutely true. I have not seen The Day After in a while, but I think I'm likely to give Special Bulletin the nod over it, as well. Something about this feels all too real, it's totally devoid of sentimental b.s. and melodrama.

    Neal: I was stunned by the conclusion of the film too. I didn't expect the film to end in nuclear disaster. And the movie really sets you up too, the way it gives you a breath of relief before smacking you with a mushroom cloud.

    Hi Anonymous: Thank you for the kind words about the blog. I review Last Broadcast in my upcoming book, Horror Films of the 1990s. But I have no doubt I'll review it here as well, one of these days.

    Ivan: Thank you for the positive commentary on my batting average! I loved that. I also agree with you that Special Bulletin is prescient in terms of news presentation.

    I saw Threads in high school, and have never watched it again. It terrified me! :) Seriously, I probably should give it another whirl as an adult. But boy, my memory of that film is that it is like the bleakest film. Ever. I should probably watch Day After again soon as well, so I can comment more intelligently about it. When last I saw it, I liked it, but that was years ago...

    I like to loudly claim I am related to John Muir, the great naturalist. I had a photo taken of me at Muir Woods, in fact. I deeply admire that man, and what he did for this country and for the environment. If we're related, truthfully, it's distant. (My ancestor, at around that time, was the Chief of the Hoboken Fire Department. I still have his personalized lantern, with his name on it...).

    Indianphantom: I love your practical joke. And I totally get it: I watched Special Bulletin with my 91 year old great-uncle, who occasionally stays at our house with us, and I had to keep re-assuring him that it was "only a movie." I felt kind of bad afterwards, for subjecting him to it, but at the same time, I totally get why anybody would be taken in by the presentation.

    Great comments, all!

    best,
    JKM

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  7. JKM: I saw Threads while in high school as well--broadcast on WOR Channel 9 out of NJ--I'm almost certain that WOR broadcast the final part of the film in B&W, to reduce the impact of all the gore. Yep, Threads is unstoppably bleak-as it should be.
    Not available on DVD in the US, I picked up the UK-region DVD.
    Thanks,
    Ivan

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  8. Excellent write-up on this one, John. I'm with Ivan on this as I, too, think, SPECIAL BULLETIN and THREADS are superior to THE DAY AFTER [the watching of which I learned the best place to be when a nuclear warhead goes off is a Volvo]. SPECIAL BULLETIN's commentary on network TV was extraordinary -- I wonder if the corporate-owned media of today would even allow such criticism of itself to be broadcast so blatantly. After watching SB first run, the next day I got into a philosophical argument with a co-worker on whether it could really occur [he believed the left leanings of the Bruce Limon character precluded it from ever happening; I thought when you got to the far-right or -left in the political landscape extreme justification and responses could well come into play]. This was a great program back then that is somewhat forgotten today. And it still has something to say. Thanks, John.

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