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Ed Flanders as RBS anchor John Woodley.
|Written by||Marshall Herskovitz
|Directed by||Edward Zwick|
|Country of origin||USA|
|Running time||105 minutes|
|Original release||March 20, 1983|
Special Bulletin is an American made-for-TV movie produced as 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. The movie was first broadcast March 20, 1983 on NBC as an edition of NBC Sunday Night at the Movies.
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.
A "Special Bulletin" slide interrupts commercials on the RBS television network for its TV shows. 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 fellow conspirators 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 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 anchors in New York City that they leave the area. The NEST team argue about how to bypass McKeeson's many safeguards. As they attempt to defuse the bomb, they realize that they have made a mistake and have accidentally triggered one of the safeguard devices. 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 to stabilize the bomb, then begin to panic. One member rushes to leave the ship's hold as two others keep working desparately on the device. Suddenly, static fills the screen as all contact with Charleston is lost.
The network switches to the main RBS newsroom in New York. Woodley is stunned and alarmed as he realizes what has probably happened. Myles, nervous and cautious and fighting to control her voice, 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 burning wreckage aboard the aircraft carrier, with huge fires blazing in downtown Charleston in the background, Meg veers between trying to report what happened and expressing fear of radiation. The cameraman pans across the harbor, which is now a firestorm. Seeing this, the traumatized Myles breaks down, saying "Oh, my God!" on the air.
Meg's cameraman had been recording a few moments earlier, and the network anchors ask Meg to ask him to rewind and play back the tape. The tape shows Barclay standing in front of a relatively normal-seeming harbor scene, overlooking the tugboat; Meg is facing the camera, her back to the boat. We see an enormous bright light exploding into view across the harbor and then flooding the screen. When the camera recovers from the sudden flash of light, we see a mushroom cloud rising over the burning shoreline, followed by a huge blast of wind—the shock-wave from the explosion—that knocks over everything, including the cameraman and his camera. The tape ends as Woodley can only ask, over and over agin, whether someone can get help to his colleagues on the carrier.
Further reports from Charleston follow, showing the city badly damages and consumed by fire; there is mass destruction and many are burned and otherwise injured by the explosion. It now emerges that the government's intention was to play for time until the Delta Force team could board and capture the ship and defuse the nuclear weapon. The film moves ahead three days to reveal the aftermath of the explosion, narrated by Myles. Thanks to the evacuation order, the death toll is estimated at less than 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.
|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 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, WCIV placed the word "Fiction" on screen at all times during its showing of the movie. 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.)
||This section possibly contains original research. (April 2010)|
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."
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".
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. Warner's rights have since reverted to the production company and thus is no longer in print.
- 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.
- "Widescreen Wonders." Warner Archive Podcast, 12-9-14