Special Bulletin

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This article is about a movie. For a breaking news segment, see Special Report.
Special Bulletin
Specbull flanders.jpg
Ed Flanders as RBS anchor John Woodley.
Genre Mockumentary
Distributed by NBC
Directed by Edward Zwick
Produced by Marshall Herskovitz
Edward Zwick
Written by Marshall Herskovitz
(teleplay)
Edward Zwick
Marshall Herskovitz
(story)
Starring Ed Flanders
Editing by Arden Rynew
Country USA
Language English
Original channel NBC
Release date March 20, 1983
Running time 105 minutes

Special Bulletin is an American made-for-TV movie first broadcast in 1983. It was an early collaboration between director Edward Zwick and writer Marshall Herskovitz, a team that would later produce such series as thirtysomething and My So-Called Life. In this movie, a terrorist group brings a homemade atomic bomb aboard a tugboat in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina in order to blackmail the U.S. Government into disabling its nuclear weapons, and the incident is caught live on television. The movie simulates a series of live news broadcasts on the fictional RBS Network.

Synopsis[edit]

An ominous "Special Bulletin" slide appears on the TV screen. A TV crew covering a dockworkers' strike are caught in the middle of a firefight between the U.S. Coast Guard and the crew of a tugboat sitting at a dock in Charleston, South Carolina. The coast guardsmen surrender and are taken hostage, as are the reporter and cameraman.

The reporter is asked to televise a statement by the terrorists calling for delivery to them of every nuclear trigger device at the U.S. Naval Base in Charleston. Without these triggers, nuclear weapons on the naval warships and nuclear-powered submarines based at Charleston cannot be used. The terrorists reveal that they have constructed their own nuclear device—one roughly equivalent to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. Their device is set to detonate within 24 hours if their demand is not met, and has anti-tampering devices that will set it off if any attempt is made to move or disarm it.

Details about the terrorists slowly begin to emerge as the broadcast hosted by Susan Myles (Kathryn Walker) and veteran newscaster John Woodley (Ed Flanders) continues. The group is led by Dr. Bruce Lyman (David Clennon), a scientist and designer of nuclear weapons for the American government. His cohorts include David McKeeson (David Rasche) a nuclear scientist who stole weapons grade plutonium and constructed the bomb; a bank robber; a poet and anti-war activist implicated in a bombing that killed several people a decade earlier; and a housewife who had been friends with Lyman back in college.

At first the government chooses to ignore or underplay the story. McKeeson eventually reveals his device to RBS's cameraman. Public announcements include the decision to order the evacuation of downtown Charleston, which causes panic. The Government later announces, just shortly before the terrorist's deadline, that it would accede to their demands. A van rolls up to the tugboat, allegedly containing the first load of nuclear triggers.

The terrorists become suspicious when the TV monitoring the RBS broadcast goes blank, to conceal a Delta Force commando team sneaking aboard the tugboat. In the ensuing gun battle, all but two of the terrorists are killed by the commandos. The journalists survive without major injury. McKeeson commits suicide before he can be captured. The remaining terrorist is taken into custody.

Members of the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST) board the tugboat to defuse the bomb. The reporter and cameraman remain despite pleas from the news anchor in New York City that they leave the area. The NEST team argue about how to bypass McKeeson's many safeguards. At the studio, an expert says that there are conventional explosives in the device, geared to set up the chain reaction. The members of the NEST team work frantically then panic. Suddenly, static fills the screen and all contact with Charleston is lost.

The network switches to the main RBS newsroom in New York. Woodley at first shows annoyance then falls silent and stunned as he realizes what has probably happened. Myles, nervous and cautious, merely advises viewers that they "seem to have lost contact" with Charleston. After considerable effort to reestablish contact, the anchors manage to get hold of Megan "Meg" Barclay (Roxanne Hart), a reporter for the local RBS television affiliate station in Charleston, WPIV, who was two miles from the tugboat aboard the aircraft carrier museum ship USS Yorktown. Amid wreckage aboard the aircraft carrier, with huge fires blazing in downtown Charleston in the background, clearly stunned and dazed, Meg expresses fear of radiation sickness. Her cameraman reveals that he was recording a few moments earlier and they ask him to rewind and play back the recording. The tape shows Barclay standing in front of a relatively normal looking harbor overlooking the tugboat, facing the camera, her back to the boat. We then see an enormous bright light coming from the other side of the harbor. As the camera lens recovers from the sudden flash of light, we catch a brief glimpse of a mushroom cloud rising over the shoreline, followed by a huge blast of wind that knocks the camera over. The tape ends. The cameraman then pans around the harbor which is now a firestorm. Myles breaks down, saying "Oh, my God!" on the air.

Charleston itself is on fire and there is mass destruction and many wounded. It is revealed that the government's intention was to play for time until the Delta Force team could get aboard the ship and defuse the nuclear weapon. The film then moves ahead three days to reveal the aftermath of the explosion. Thanks to the evacuation, the death toll is 2,000; however, another 25,000 suffer severe injuries, including 4,800 severe burn cases; half a million are left homeless due to fallout and the region is expected to be uninhabitable for decades.

Cast[edit]

Actor Role
Ed Flanders John Woodley (RBS Anchor)
Kathryn Walker Susan Myles (RBS Anchor)
Christopher Allport Steven Levitt (WPIV reporter)
David Clennon Dr. Bruce Lyman (Terrorist)
Rosalind Cash Frieda Barton (Terrorist)
Roxanne Hart Megan "Meg" Barclay (RBS Reporter)
David Rasche Dr. David McKeeson (Terrorist)
Lane Smith Morton Sanders (RBS Reporter)
Ebbe Roe Smith Jim Seaver (Terrorist)
Roberta Maxwell Diane Silverman (Terrorist)
J. Wesley Huston Bernard Frost (WPIV Reporter)
Michael Madsen Man interviewed on the street

Impact[edit]

The first of the very carefully worded disclaimers.

Several factors enhanced Special Bulletin's resemblance to an actual live news broadcast. The movie was shot on videotape rather than film, which gave the presentation the visual appearance of being "live." Other small touches, such as actors hesitating or stumbling over dialogue (as if being spoken extemporaneously) and small technical glitches (as would often be experienced in a live broadcast), contributed to the realism.

In addition, some specific references made the movie especially realistic to residents of Charleston. The call letters of the fictional Charleston RBS affiliate, WPIV, were close to those of NBC's then-affiliate in Charleston, WCIV. Also, a key plot element mentions "a power failure at a transmitter in North Charleston"; the TV transmitter sites are actually in Awendaw.

The filmmakers were required to include on-screen disclaimers at the beginning and end of every commercial break in order to assure viewers that the events were a dramatization. The word "dramatization" also appeared on the screen during key moments of the original broadcast. Additionally, the Charleston NBC affiliate broadcasting the movie had the word "Fiction" on screen at all times during the showing. The film also made use of "accelerated time"—events said to take place hours apart instead are shown only minutes apart. Nonetheless, there were still news reports of isolated panic in Charleston. Much as with the famous 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, it was entirely possible for viewers to tune in between disclaimers and make a snap judgment about what they were seeing, although in both cases a quick flip of the dial would reveal that no other stations were covering this supposedly major news event. (When the program was rebroadcast in 1984, the only disclaimers were made at the commercial breaks; there were none on the screen while the action was taking place.)

Themes[edit]

The movie investigates the issue of the media's coverage of an event, as to whether it changes the event, whether the media is irresponsible in giving such persons access to the airwaves, and whether the media trivializes significant events by the type of coverage given to them. Special Bulletin takes a serious look at the possible symbiosis between the media and those it has to deal with, whether they be government officials, politicians, terrorists and criminals, or media pundits, in covering a story.

The story also shows the significance of the nuclear stockpiles held by various governments. Based on the size of the bomb as described by the terrorists, it would have essentially destroyed everything within a range of about one mile from ground zero, in this case Charleston Harbor. A reporter, discussing the possible effects of an explosion, states that someone standing five miles from the tugboat "would survive the blast at least." A person standing five miles from the blast point of a typical U.S. or Soviet strategic one megaton nuclear weapon "would be vaporized in the first three-fifths of a second." (This is an exaggeration of the effects of a one megaton detonation, which is potentially survivable at that distance. It is not clear whether this was intended as an indication of the reporter's poor understanding of nuclear yields or an error in the script.)

Reaction[edit]

Special Bulletin was nominated for six Emmy awards and won four, including Outstanding Drama Special. It also won Directors Guild of America and Writers Guild of America prizes for Zwick and Herskovitz, as well as the Humanitas Prize, which irked former NBC president Reuven Frank. In his book on TV news, Out of Thin Air, Frank called Special Bulletin "junk" and claimed he wanted to return his own Humanitas Prize in protest, "but I couldn't find it."

Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide rated Special Bulletin "way above average," a unique exception in a guide that rated all made-for-TV movies as "below average, average, or above average".

Home video[edit]

Warner Home Video issued Special Bulletin on VHS and Betamax cassette. Starting in January 2010, Warner Home Video made the film available on DVD for one year as part of its Warner Archive Collection. Films in this series are produced on an on-demand basis and sold exclusively through the Warner Brothers site. It is no longer in print.

See also[edit]

  • Countdown to Looking Glass, a 1984 Canadian TV movie that used simulated news broadcasts to chronicle a Cold War showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union.
  • Without Warning, an apocalyptic 1994 TV movie also presented as a faux news broadcast.
  • The Day After, a 1983 made-for-TV movie about a NATO-Russian nuclear war.
  • Trinity's Child by William Prochnau, portrays a sudden nuclear attack by the USSR upon the United States, followed by an eruption of global warfare and internal political crises.
  • Arc Light, a 1994 novel also by Eric L. Harry
  • The Last Ship by William Brinkley. Portrays a sudden massive nuclear exchange between the superpowers, with further escalating exchanges over a four hour period leaving most of the northern hemisphere choked in radioactive fallout. The ship loses contact with the U.S. Navy, and then investigates various sites around Europe and Africa starting with Naval Station Rota in Spain, making contact with other stray ships, military and civilian. All the consequences of the exchange for the crew, and humanity as a whole, are explored.
  • The Third World War: The Untold Story by General Hackett, portrays a conventional Soviet invasion of Western Europe, including the behavior of the formally neutral Ireland and Sweden, and internal Soviet debates and thinking.
  • Team Yankee, a 1987 novel by Harold Coyle set in Hackett's scenario
  • Red Army, by Ralph Peters, showing a Soviet invasion of Western Europe from an entirely Soviet perspective.
  • Red Storm Rising, a similar World War III scenario covering a conventional Soviet invasion of Western Europe, by Tom Clancy
  • The Third World War by Humphrey Hawksley depicts a slow building crises that culminates in a nightmarish World War III involving nuclear and biological weapons.

External links[edit]