Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Ever stumble by chance across something which is so great that you can't believe you'd never heard of it before? I just had that experience with a film I rented. What's even more inexplicable is that it aired as a made-for-TV movie on NBC in 1983. It won an Emmy, too. But I can't understand how a movie as powerful as this can have been virtually forgotten.

I was browsing in Odd Obsession Movies, which I've mentioned before, and I heard the proprietor and another guy talking about this great film called Special Bulletin. I continued to browse, and lo and behold, there on the shelves was Special Bulletin. As the description also looked intriguing, I decided to rent it. When I took it up to the counter, the proprietor told me that it was incredible. In the past, I've found such recommendations by store owners to be unreliable, but in this case he was right on the money.

Special Bulletin, as the title suggests, is made up of a series of fictional "special bulletins" from the newsroom of the fictional broadcast network RBS; the viewer sees no more than what an ordinary TV viewer would see if the events depicted were to actually happen. A group of five anti-nuclear terrorists on a boat in the harbor of Charleston, S. C., take two Coast Guardsmen and a reporter and cameraman from a local station hostage, and demand to be given a live feed on RBS. Once they get this, they claim that they have a homemade nuclear weapon on board, and unless the detonating modules on all the nuclear weapons in the Charleston area are removed and delivered to them by 4:30 the next day, so that they can destroy them, it will go off ninety minutes later. At first nobody takes this threat too seriously, including RBS's two news anchors; but it gradually becomes clear that the terrorists really do have an A-bomb.

This plays out as a combination of media satire and serious suspense, with the former predominating in the early scenes, and the latter as the deadline approaches and the terrorists' behavior becomes increasingly unpredictable. The way the "network" and its on-air personnel respond to the unfolding events is totally true-to-life. The two anchors in particular, played perfectly by Ed Flanders and Kathryn Walker, are completely believable. At first smug and supercilious, as the reality of the terrorists’ threat sinks in their self-assurance gradually evaporates. I don't want to spoil the ending, but I will say that I found the concluding scenes devastating, and leave you to interpret that as you will.

The director, Edward Zwick, and writer, Marshall Herskovitz, would later go on to create thirtysomething and My So-Called Life together. I've never seen more than a few minutes of either of these; but my preconceptions about these in no way prepared me for Special Bulletin. The VHS of Special Bulletin is out of print, and it apparently has never been released on DVD; the proprietor of Odd Obsession told me that his was the only place in Chicagoland you could rent it. But if you get a chance to watch it, by all means do so.

Yes, phenmenally irritating that you cannot get this movie for less than $50. It was awesome.
For the life of me, why don't they cut it into a DVD and release it for $20? It's shot in faux-video, for crying out loud, it's not as if HDTV resolution is critically important.

I loved this movie on its initial TV broadcast, and I want to see it again very much. But not "$50 very much.".
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