An ordinary news broadcast is interrupted when a terrorist group, holding a t.v. reporter and a cameraman as hostages, threaten to explode a nuclear bomb from a small boat on the dockside at Charleston, South Carolina – the detonation will proceed unless their demands, for disarmament of the state’s nuclear stockpile, are met.
Shot on videotape for the NBC network, this award-winning t.v. movie from the makers of ‘thirtysomething’ is one of American television’s most daring offerings ever. In the tradition of Orson Welles’ War Of The Worlds radio broadcast or the BBC’s 1992 Halloween special Ghostwatch, Special Bulletin is designed to slot neatly into a standard evening’s programming (it’s ingeniously preceded by a trailer for a fictional game show) and shock the unsuspecting audience out of their soap opera-induced stupor. It’s all done in a totally credible manner – after the initial waves of panic, the news link-persons maintain their usual front of glossy professionalism; we get constant on-the-spot updates on the events at the docks, in-depth profiles of the terrorist quintet (a mixed bunch, including a radical poet and a nuclear scientist whose conscience has caused him to abandon his career) and even a special live link-up with the boat. Zwick and co., to be sure, are making an anti-nuke statement here, but their criticisms don’t begin and end with The Bomb; the banality of television, with its reduction of the gravest crises into easy-to-understand graphics and emphasis on presentation over content, gets a long-deserved kick up the arse, and the shambolic, amateur terrorists also receive severe condemnation. At the time, this was a biting response to ABC’s apocalypse-as-soap drama The Day After – viewing Special Bulletin in a post-Osama world now gives it a whole extra dimension. In Britain, the only person making anything to rival this sort of production is our master satirist Chris Morris, whose ‘The Day Today’ and ‘Brass Eye’ series mount savage attacks against precisely the same targets at which Zwick and writer Marshall Herskovitz fired here.