On March 20, 1983, NBC aired a startling program from director Edward Zwick titled 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.
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.
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.
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 blowhard pundits, 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.
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.
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?
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 without taking a breath because we have to be worried about something -- anything -- all the time.
The second thematic concern of Special Bulletin involves, pretty clearly, the colossal danger of nuclear weapons.
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.