Special Bulletin

Special Bulletin
Ed Flanders as RBS anchor John Woodley.
Genre
Teleplay byMarshall Herskovitz
Story by
Directed byEdward Zwick
Starring
Music byFerdinand Jay Smith (promo and news music)
Country of originUnited States
Original languageEnglish
Production
Executive producerDon Ohlmeyer
Producers
  • Marshall Herskovitz
  • Edward Zwick
EditorArden Rynew
Running time105 minutes
Production companyOhlmeyer Communications Company
Original release
NetworkNBC
Release
  • March 20, 1983 (1983-03-20)

Special Bulletin is a 1983 American drama television film directed by Edward Zwick and written by Marshall Herskovitz, based on a story by both. It was an early collaboration between the two, who would later produce such series as thirtysomething and My So-Called Life. The film was first broadcast March 20, 1983 on NBC as part of NBC Sunday Night at the Movies.

In the film, 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. It simulates a series of live news broadcasts on the fictional RBS Network.

Synopsis

The entirety of the film is portrayed through the perspective of a news broadcast through the fictional RBS news network. It begins with promotional scenes from other RBS Network shows. One is cut off by the announcement "We interrupt our regular programming to bring you this Special Bulletin from RBS News."

In Charleston, South Carolina, a skirmish is fought between Coast Guard personnel and a group of terrorists aboard a docked tugboat called Liberty May in Charleston Harbor. Caught in the battle while reporting an unrelated story, RBS reporter Steve Levitt and his cameraman George Takashima are taken hostage aboard the boat. As part of a deal to release the surrendered Coast Guardsmen, the terrorists; Doctors Bruce Lyman and David McKeeson, political activist Frieda Barton, social worker Diane Silverman, and mentally unstable ex-convict Jim Seaver, ask to broadcast their demands to the U.S. Government. Dr. Lyman demands the triggers for all 968 nuclear devices in the area (Charleston Naval Shipyard and the Polaris Missile Facility, Atlantic (POMFLANT) at the nearby Naval Weapons Station being an important staging ground for U.S. nuclear submarines) delivered to them, intending to destroy them by dropping them in the Atlantic Ocean. Dr. Lyman states that failure to oblige to the demand or any deviation from the plan will result in the group detonating their own improvised nuclear device stowed aboard the ship.

Subsequent investigations into Lyman and McKeeson reveal their backgrounds in nuclear weaponry and technology. Dr. Lyman himself was noted as being instrumental in the construction of the neutron bomb before he became a radical anti-nuclear demonstrator. Dr. McKeeson shows the reporters covering the story the terrorists' bomb, explaining that not only is he the man who built it, but he has fitted several fail-safes and anti-tamper devices to the bomb, revealing that he is the only person who can disarm it. Eventually, the Department of Defense agrees to the terrorists' demands and a van arrives outside the tugboat, supposedly carrying the nuclear triggers.

Moments before the handover, a power failure occurs in Charleston – all televisions including one on the tugboat go off the air. This proves to be deliberate, as a Delta Force commando team storms the boat, killing several of the terrorists, including Dr. Lyman. Dr. McKeeson is cornered, but commits suicide to escape capture. Steve and George are safely taken off the ship, but they continue to broadcast on the dock while the NEST Team boards the boat to disarm the device. A camera aboard the boat records the team working, when they accidentally trigger one of McKeeson's safeguards. As the team frantically try to stabilize the device, the feed is suddenly interrupted by static, at which point the broadcast returns to the RBS Studio, the hosts clearly shaken by what they have just witnessed. The broadcast shifts to another reporter, Meg Barclay, who was aboard USS Yorktown (CV-10) two miles away. Footage reveals that the device exploded, resulting in a 23-kiloton nuclear blast that has caused a firestorm, destroying the city of Charleston.

Three days later, RBS broadcasts the aftermath of the detonation. Thanks to an earlier ordered evacuation, only 2,000 citizens perished in the detonation. However, thousands more have been left injured, traumatized or homeless, and the surrounding area will be uninhabitable for decades to come. The film ends as the news station reports on other stories across the world.

Cast

Impact

The first of the carefully worded disclaimers.

Several factors enhanced Special Bulletin's resemblance to an actual live news broadcast. It 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. With the exception of RBS network and news jingles, there is also no musical score used. The end credits are accompanied by the sound of a teletype.

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. In addition, NBC sent releases to the various military commands in the Charleston area of the movie's airing, so they could inform their attached servicemembers to be prepared for the possibility of nervous phone calls from home, and could reassure their relatives and friends back home that what was airing was in fact a fictional dramatization, and not a real news story. 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.

WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee, Wisconsin was the only NBC affiliate which refused to air the film out of concern that, as station president Mike McCormick stated, "people will be deceived into believing it's an actual telecast." However, some other NBC affiliates preempted the broadcast because they had previously scheduled local programming for the evening, before the film was placed by the network into that timeslot at the last minute.

Reception

Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide rated Special Bulletin "way above average."

The Washington Post described it as "A shrewd, keen, wise, hip, occasionally lacerating and sometimes gravely funny dark parody of network TV news coverage." Also, "At times, the unfolding story in Special Bulletin comes across as ludicrous, but then one has to think, how much more ludicrous is it than some of the actual news events of the past 15 years or so, and the way television has honed its way of covering them? It's a process that deserves scrutiny not just in poker-faced journals and ivory tower think tanks but on television. Praiseworthy trailblazers like the ABC News late night Viewpoint broadcasts have done this one way. Special Bulletin does it in another way-not a better one, perhaps, but in one more accessible to greater numbers of viewers."

The New York Times stated that 2,200 calls from alarmed viewers were received in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington and Cleveland. NBC's flagship station, WNBC-TV in New York, received 731 calls, 44 of them critical, and 43 asking if the program was real. The station manager of WCIV, Celia Shaw, said, "In retrospect, maybe it would have been better with a theoretical city, rather than Charleston, with its large number of military installations."

Accolades

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."

Home video

Lorimar Home Video issued Special Bulletin on VHS and Betamax, and Warner Home Video would later reissue it; these releases omit the on-screen "dramatization" overlay. Starting in January 2010, Warner Bros. made the film available on DVD for one year as part of its Warner Archive Collection. Warner's rights have since reverted to the production company and the DVD is currently out of print.

See also

  • Countdown to Looking Glass, a 1984 Canadian TV film that used simulated news broadcasts to chronicle a Cold War showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union.
  • The Day After, a 1983 TV film about a nuclear war and its effects on the Midwest U.S.
  • Threads, a 1984 BBC film inspired by Academy Award-winning docudrama The War Game.
  • The War Game, a 1965 pseudo-documentary in the form of a newsmagazine depicting a nuclear attack on Britain. Filmed for broadcast on the BBC it was not aired due to concerns that it would panic the population.
  • Without Warning, an apocalyptic 1994 TV film also presented as a faux news broadcast.

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