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The early 1980s brought the Cold War to a new simmer, with Ronald Reagan's aggressive plan to de-stabilize the established balance of nuclear terror. Once again there was plenty of talk about "winnable" atomic wars and pre-emptive nuclear attacks. The President initiated work on neutron bombs, weapons designed to yield maximum radiation (killing people) with minimal blast effects (sparing buildings). In March 23 of 1983 Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, a dubious anti-missile defense system that would boost what was already an economy-busting military budget way into the stratosphere.
Liberal Hollywood responded as it hadn't in the 1950s, when talk of disarmament was suppressed as radical, dangerous and anti-American. On November 20 a three-hour TV movie, The Day After showed the effects of nuclear war on Eastern Kansas. The brutal and downbeat movie helped focus discussion again. In 1984 the British aired their own variant, Threads. In that tale we see the effects of nuclear war lasting for years, literally returning England to the Dark Ages.
But back in 1983, just three days before Reagan's so-called "Star Wars" speech, NBC aired Special Bulletin, a TV movie that simulates network coverage of a domestic terrorist incident in Charleston, South Carolina. Taking a page from the famous 1938 Halloween War of the Worlds radio broadcast that made Orson Welles a household name, Special Bulletin is shot on videotape and edited to look like an emergency broadcast of a crisis of national importance. Ed Flanders and Kathryn Walker are New York news anchors trying to remain professional as more and more disturbing news comes in from Charleston.
The script by producers Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick affixes a dramatic curve onto the kind of live TV ordeal that accompanies a riot or a major disaster. Gunmen on a tugboat on the Charleston docks exchange fire with Coast Guard authorities. They seize hostages, including a TV reporter (Christopher Allport) and his cameraman. The New York news anchors report the standoff as a troubling but limited incident until the dissident nuclear scientists behind the shootout (David Clennon & David Rasche) lead the network's camera crew below decks, where a homemade nuclear bomb is ticking away. The dissidents demand that the firing mechanisms of hundreds of nuclear warheads in the Charleston area be delivered to the tugboat, or they'll detonate the bomb.
The brilliance of the teleplay is that it captures perfectly the contours of these kinds of televised emergencies. Because they must avoid causing a panic, the network news anchors take the position that nothing needs to happen until the threat is confirmed. After the bomb is authenticated they continue to minimize the danger, bringing in experts who can only talk in general terms. As we have seen time and again, the official response to the incident is either completely uncoordinated or purposely obscured. Instead of addressing the problem, the first governmental announcements criticize the network's giving the "terrorists" airtime to speak their minds. The nervous scientist-extortionists on the tugboat proclaim that their action is a responsible wake-up call to the state-organized terror that holds the entire world hostage under the constant threat of nuclear war. Nobody official is prepared to take the issue seriously.
To pass the time and be "informative", the network broadcasts background information on the gunmen on board the tug. Besides the two scientist dropouts from the nation's bomb-making industry, the group consists of a loose-cannon triggerman and a woman who has run away from her husband to join her scientist lover in an irrational act of resistance. The most levelheaded person on board is a radical black activist (Rosalind Cash). She reasons that because the group has succeeded in delivering their message to America in a dramatic fashion, their job has been done and they should surrender. The news anchors are put in an impossible position of attempting to be 'fair and balanced' with murdering political extortionists. They want to tell the public the truth, and also do what they can to keep their hostage reporter and cameraman safe.
The government has another agenda entirely. Writers Zwick and Herskovitz imply that the administration - presumably the Reagan administration -- would rather sacrifice a city than lose face in the public relations battle against terrorism. Washington announces that it is acceding to the activists' wishes, even as other news sources insist that no wide-scale bomb dismantling is occurring. Sure enough, the military has a slick trick up its sleeve that initially seems a roaring success. But the decision makers have foolishly underestimated the very nuclear engineers whose ingenuity has made the bombs possible. The dissidents say that the bomb has been rigged so it cannot be defused, but Washington is willing to gamble that the claim is just a bluff.
Special Bulletin is an insightful critique of the news report format, which pretends that "on the spot" reportage gets to the truth of events. And news anchors charged with selling a network image can't help but impose a distorting spin on the reports as they come in. The main news anchor energetically defends his network's journalistic integrity -- more energetically than anyone analyzes the bomb threat. When the White House spokespeople refuse to address the issue, the TV news isn't in a position to demand clarification. The TV news can also do nothing when the military begins a smokescreen of disinformation. The TV news people are little more than emotional babysitters, offering reassurance for a complacent nation.
By the time Special Bulletin grinds to its violent ending its main points have already been made. America is just as vulnerable to attack from within as without (oh, for a return to the relative stability of 1983) and every established source of public information mindlessly tells us that everything's gonna be okay. And this is before television was inundated with politically provocative "news opinion" shows that exploit the freedom to scream out lies until nobody can trust anything they read or hear.
At the time the only really established name in the cast of Special Bulletin was Ed Flanders, a familiar TV veteran. On-site reporter Roxanne Hart and 'hostage reporter' Christopher Allport have worked steadily in television. The impressive David Clennon is well known from movies like The Thing, The Right Stuff and Matinee. Rosalind Cash is an exceptional actress in that she maintained a flourishing career while avoiding stereotyped 'black' roles, making memorable appearances in the movies Klute, The Omega Man and Hickey & Boggs, among others. Showing up in a tiny bit (with some nice dialogue) is future tough guy leading man Michael Madsen. Writer-producers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz went on to successful major careers, working together and separately.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Special Bulletin looks very good. It was filmed on video and has maintained its original, appropriate look. Audio is fine as well -- the movie has no conventional music score, just station ID music for its fictional national network. No trailer is included. 1
When first broadcast, the show began with text disclaimers that repeated with every commercial interruption. Most of them are still here. According to some sources a few viewers took the film's simulated crisis seriously but I remember no such thing being reported at the time. The movie did inspire renewed dialogue about domestic nuclear terrorism, the old "anybody can deliver a bomb on a boat or a truck because of free access to our ports and cities" argument. This is essentially what an anti-government extremist did in Oklahoma in 1995.
Nobody remembers the 1950 English movie Seven Days to Noon, a gripping suspense story that parallels Special Bulletin: a deranged nuclear expert plants a bomb in the center of London and demands an end to research on nukes. John Sturges' 1965 The Satan Bug follows the exact same game plan with an even more lethal biological weapon. Both movies end with the Free World's weapons research once again made safe from radical interference. The Japanese made their own movie of this kind in 1979, the eccentric and somewhat fumbled The Man Who Stole the Sun. It's about a high school teacher who assembles a bomb in his own kitchen. By the time he's ready to go public he has seriously irradiated himself. But the movie goes off in crazy directions. Half of the narrative splits into a crime action story, while the teacher makes absurd extortion demands: he wants Japanese TV stations to stop cutting off major league baseball for the late-night news -- and for the government to let The Rolling Stones give a concert despite their ban for drug use. Go figure.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Special Bulletin rates:
1. I've just discovered that Stuart Galbraith IV has already given Special Bulletin an impressively thorough review, here. Stuart also graciously showed me the elusive The Man Who Stole the Sun.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
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T'was Ever Thus.