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Ed Flanders as RBS anchor John Woodley.
|Directed by||Edward Zwick|
|Produced by||Marshall Herskovitz
|Written by||Marshall Herskovitz
|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.
The movie focuses on the media's coverage of news, and whether covering the news changes it. The film has no opening credits (unusual for the time). Instead, the program begins with a promo for a typical daytime network lineup: previews of a game show and soap opera are shown, along with a catchy jingle, "RBS: We're Moving Up!" Suddenly, an ominous "Special Bulletin" slide appears on the screen, with an announcer saying "We interrupt this program to bring you a Special Bulletin from RBS News." It shows how a local TV crew, covering a dockworkers' strike, become caught in the middle of a firefight between the U.S. Coast Guard and a tugboat sitting at a dock in Charleston, South Carolina. After several Coast Guard personnel are wounded, the Coast Guardsmen, apparently outgunned, surrender and are taken hostage, as are the reporter and cameraman.
The reporter is asked to televise a statement by the terrorists of their demands: the delivery to them of every nuclear trigger device at the U.S. Naval Base in Charleston, so that they can be taken out to sea and destroyed. Without these special triggers, the nuclear weapons on the naval warships and nuclear-powered submarines based at Charleston, to include the Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) submarines, cannot be used. The terrorists reveal that they have constructed their own nuclear device—one roughly equivalent in strength to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. Their device is set to detonate within 24 hours if the demand is not met. It is also equipped with anti-tampering devices that will set it off if any attempt is made to move or disarm it.
As the faux news broadcast continues, 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 former designer of nuclear weapons for the American government who had recently been imprisoned for taking part in anti-nuclear demonstrations. His cohorts include David McKeeson (David Rasche) a nuclear scientist who stole weapons grade plutonium from the Hanford nuclear research facility in Richland, Washington and constructed the bomb; a bank robber whom Lyman met in jail; a poet and anti-war activist implicated in a bombing that killed several people a decade earlier; and a meek housewife and mother of two who had been friends with Lyman back in college.
Several times during the program, Woodley finds himself debating with Lyman and his colleagues the ethics of television journalism and the role it plays in both covering the activities of terrorists and, at the same time, inadvertently promoting such activities. "TV news is essentially show business," says McKeeson during a particularly heated exchange with Woodley.
At first the government chooses to ignore and underplay the story. McKeeson eventually reveals his device, which is kept in the ship's lower hold, to RBS's cameraman. The scientist describes it as an Implosion-type nuclear weapon and ominously warns viewers that he designed the bomb to detonate should anyone try to tamper with it or move it. As facts come out indicating the threat being real, various public announcements occur, culminating with the decision to order the evacuation of the downtown Charleston area, which causes a public 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 triggers that they had demanded.
In the interim, the terrorists, who are still holding the RBS reporter and cameraman, become suspicious when the TV on which they are monitoring the RBS broadcast suddenly goes blank, supposedly due to a transmitter power failure at the local station. In fact, the signal was cut-off to mask the arrival of a Delta Force team sneaking aboard the tugboat (which is caught live by a distant TV camera). 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.
All this occurs a little over an hour prior to the detonation time of the bomb. Members of the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST) enter the boat in an attempt to defuse the bomb. The reporter and cameraman remain to comment on their efforts, despite pleas from the news anchor in New York City that they leave the area. Over a remote camera installed on the tugboat, the NEST team is shown having an argument over how to bypass McKeeson's many safeguards. Abruptly, the NEST team gets into a heated argument. At the studio, an expert, Dr. Nils Johannsen, brought in by RBS (remotely) says that there are conventional explosives in the device, geared to set up the chain reaction. "They have just put a match under the whole pile!" he says. The members of the NEST team are shown working frantically, then breaking into a panic just before the signal is abruptly broken. Static fills the screen and contact with Charleston is lost.
The network switches back to the main RBS newsroom in New York, which is initially in confusion, the broadcast image briefly going to a test pattern. Woodley at first shows annoyance, looking around at staffers and angrily barking out "Somebody get me some information, dammit! What the hell is this?" 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 across Charleston Harbor on the opposite bank of the Cooper River in Mount Pleasant. In the midst of wreckage aboard the aircraft carrier, with huge fires blazing in downtown Charleston in the background and clearly stunned and dazed, she expresses fear of imminent radiation sickness. Her cameraman, who has also survived, 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 blows through and knocks the camera over. The tape ends. The cameraman then pans the harbor which is now nothing but a firestorm. At this, Myles breaks down, saying "Oh, my God!" on the air.
More chaos is revealed in Charleston itself: scenes of fires ("People are standing here watching their city burn," says a stunned corrspondent), destruction and wounded people. It is revealed that the government's intention was to play for time until the Delta Force team could be put on the ship, on the assumption the nuclear response team could defuse the nuclear weapon. Now, local authorities and the government have to deal with the destruction of a city, and after showing scenes of mass destruction farther out from the blast, a tearful John Woodley can only say "This is a very dark moment" as the image fades to black.
The film then moves ahead three days to reveal the aftermath of the explosion. Thanks to the evacuation, the immediate death toll was less than 2,000; however, another 25,000 suffer severe injuries, including about 4,800 severe burn cases, at a time when the total number of burn unit beds in the United States numbers only about 2,400. Some half a million are left homeless due to inland fallout and the region is expected to be uninhabitable for decades.
At this point, the broadcast shifts its attentions from the destruction of Charleston to cover other chaotic subjects around the world (such as labor riots in Poland, a World Bank announcement) which have continued to occur despite the destruction of Charleston.
|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|
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 uncomfortably close to those of the then NBC 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, SC.
Because of all this, 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 just 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.)
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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.)
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."
Police departments in Charleston (and other cities) did report a number of calls, wondering if the show was real during its original broadcast; there were few, if any, when the program was shown a second time.
In Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide, made-for-TV movies are rated as "below average, average, or above average". Special Bulletin was rated as "way above average".
Home video 
Warner Home Video issued Special Bulletin on VHS and Betamax cassette in 1998. 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 
- 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.