' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Special Bulletin (1983)

Friday, August 09, 2019

Friday's Old Fashioned: Special Bulletin (1983)

Edward Zwick’s made-for-TV 1983 movie “Special Bulletin” deliberately utilizes its small screen format to the fullest, telling its story of domestic terrorists threatening to detonate a nuclear bomb in Charleston, South Carolina unless the American government hands over 968 nuclear warhead modules in hopes of spurring unilateral global nuclear disarmament entirely through fake news reports. As such, it evokes Orson Welles’s famous 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio drama, though Welles’s only aim, in his words, was to annihilate the world before your very ears, entertainment for entertainment’s sake, any accompanying news of people mistaking for the real thing an unintentional byproduct. Of course, those reports of people mistaking it for the real thing were, in retrospect, often as fake as the Martian invasion itself, the latter more of a commentary on the news media than the actual radio drama. Zwick, however, in tandem with his longtime writing cohort Marshall Herskovitz, not only uses his format to ingeniously create tension by limiting the information flow, believably rendering it so that we, the audience, only know as much as the newsmakers, but then uses the format to question the format itself, frequently coming across more as an attack on the news media than nuclear war.

We meet a young news reporter, Steve Levitt (Christopher Allport), in the middle of filming a feature on a Charleston pier, lambasting the noise of passing trucks, standing with one foot up on a crate, like a faux-heroic swashbuckler, but throwing himself into harm’s way when a firefight erupts between the Coast Guard and the terrorists as they enter the harbor aboard their plutonium-carrying tugboat. And though Steve and his cameraman are taken hostage, becoming the mouthpiece for the terrorists, headed up by nuclear scientists Bruce Lyman (David Clennon) and David McKeeson (David Rasche) turned anti-nuclear radicals, Steve maintains an eager beaver air, expressing less fear of the threat than excitement at being the one in the middle of it, still dutifully thrusting his microphone into the terrorists’ faces. Alas, that becomes a problem when his character is meant to feel the gravity of the situation much later, an emotion Allport can’t quite convey, never making the turn from faux-hero to real one.

As John Woodley, senior RBS News Anchor, guiding the telecast from the studio, Ed Flanders evinces more dimension, playing the Cronkite-ish voice-of-god role as someone manifestly aware of his role as voice-of-god, every “um” and “ah” deliberately sounding less improvised than a means to impart gravitas by ensuring the people watching at home are hanging on his every word. That his speaking voice is for effect as much as assurance rhymes with the come-back-from-commercial-break America Under Siege graphic, underlined by music that sounds so much like a parody, like what people behind the scenes really would come up with in such a crisis, it loops back around and sounds real. That graphic is so good that it becomes the one moment where the terrorists communicating their demands through TV runs aesthetic interference as McKeeson’s literally calling out the graphic feels too on the nose; the absurdity of the graphic speaks for itself.

Of course, McKeeson calling it out also demonstrates how the press gets it from all sides, the terrorists and the government, the latter only glimpsed in brief snippets of spokesmen, often scolding RBS for giving the bad guys a platform even as RBS insists it has no choice. There is no right answer here, really, and “Special Bulletin” doesn’t provide one, thankfully, just letting the dueling ideas reverberate off each other throughout. In fact, as RBS becomes something akin to an antagonist of the government too. As Lane Smith’s self-impressed reporter skulks about the US Capitol and feeding news to the terrorists by way of feeding it to the American people, the terrorists’ demands fade into the background, becoming a source of their frustration, brought home both in Rasche’s livewire performance and Clennon’s almost disbelieving exasperation that America seems ready to write off Charleston.

Though the terrorists are never meant to empathize with, their killing of a Coast Guard at the beginning instantly declaring the ethical line, their cause gets lost in the narrative, partially accounted for in the movie’s pretend news structure, RBS ensuring to portray them as the agents of chaos they are, though it still feels like a flaw. “Special Bulletin” might stress the role of media over and over, but nuclear disarmament in this scenario is only of interest to the ones who go rogue, a glaring oversight in a movie that undoubtedly seeks an anti-nuclear point. Then again, a clock is placed on the screen throughout, the news ticking down to the end of the terrorists’ deadline, which might be the movie’s suspense but is RBS’s too, and which has the eerie effect of trivializing the true nature of the event until it’s too late. No one gets the point until it’s already been made, and then it just becomes more news, one more solemn packaged piece in addition to all others.

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