'Special Bulletin' film review: '80s take on news, nuclear arms as timely as ever
Innovative, thought-provoking and intense, the 1983 made-for-TV "Special Bulletin" isn't merely a gimmick flick. This thrilling and engrossing film completely immerses the audience in an all-too-real scenario -- and weaves in intriguing commentary on the nature of nuclear weapons and press ethics.
In short: Terrorists take hostages in Charleston, S.C. and demand the U.S. government disarm its nuclear arsenal - if their demands are not met, they threaten to detonate their nuclear bomb. Movie is presented as live news coverage on fictional network. Ed Flanders, Kathryn Walker, David Clennon and David Rasche star.
The '80s were the heyday of the made-for-TV movie - most of which were melodramatic slogs, each indistinguishable from the last. This simply cannot be said of "Special Bulletin," a film so chilling in its realism that it had to have frequent disclaimers just to remind audiences that this was a work of fiction, even if its story seemed all-too real.
Shaped in the mold of the infamous 1938 Orson Welles radio drama "The War of the Worlds," this nuclear disaster movie plays like a live news broadcast of an ongoing terrorist threat. "Bulletin" looks, feels, moves and sounds just like breaking news coverage seen on any major network today. A pair of poised and authoritative news anchors (of the fictional network RBS) accompany the audience through the nuclear crisis, cutting to news reporters and offering occasional commentary. At times unpolished and seemingly improvised, "Bulletin" has the texture and feel of an immediate and urgent event.
It's worth noting that "Bulletin" aired on NBC in 1983 - in the infancy of round-the-clock news coverage and at the height of the Cold War. Writer-director Edward Zwick ("Blood Diamond" and "The Last Samurai") crafted a script steeped with a deep mistrust of media coverage and terrified of nuclear arms. Zwick's film gains credibility and believably with its all-too-realistic depiction of news coverage - and the film leverages that into a story with sharp criticism of the media and the military.
"Bulletin" fires right out of the gate and never relents until its breathtaking conclusion. What starts out as a small, armed skirmish on a harbor rapidly escalates into a threat endangering an entire city. The film fleshes out the macro and micro levels of the crisis, following the public's initial response as well as the terrorist group's temperament as the situation unravels. The film essentially asks how the public, government and press would react to a nuclear terrorist threat - and "Bulletin" wonderfully explores the many facets of the scenario.
Final verdict: "Bulletin" is a haunting and prescient thriller that remains as timely and relevant today as it was in 1983. This a scathing commentary of the media wrapped in the underlying fear of nuclear weapons.
"Special Bulletin" has a running time of 103 minutes and is unrated.