Did you see it?
If you’re reading this blog, I highly doubt it.
For if you saw it and were able to somewhat comprehend it, you’d have to be at least 37-years-old or so.
Similar in theme to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds in the respect that it managed to elicit the panicky idiocy of popular American consciousness.
In 1983, it aired during one prime time evening. Disguised in media drag, it posed as a sincere news story. Posing as something it wasn’t, but from what I remember, tons of people fell for it. They mistook it for reality.
It was one of my first realizations that people, as a rule of thumb, are dumb as dirt.
I was 18 or 19. I knew it was a fictional television fantasy.
It was called “Special Bulletin.” A 2-hour movie which masqueraded as a “special bulletin” flashing across the news screen spawning from a pre-modern terrorist act in Charleston, South Carolina. In the archaic language of pre-Muslim terrorism, 1983 represented an entirely different monster from the modern terroristic incarnation.
It’s like this: Special Bulletin aired during the final stages of the Cold War. Remember the Cold War? Russia. The Soviet Union. Big.
We worried about BIG problems, BIG threats, BIG killers.
All things nuclear, everything that was Ronald Reagan…instantaneous death and vaporization beckoned in the form of monstrous atmospheric invaders. They promised to visit in the form of incomprehensibly mammoth vehicles of death.
Special Bulletin was a fictional portrayal of a doomsday situation which unfolded wickedly in a South Carolina port during a routine news story about a dock worker’s strike.
A group of anti-nuclear terrorists storm a docked tugboat. We learn, during the special bulletin, that the the terrorist ringleader is a former (and ostracized) nuclear scientist who suddenly “turned” vehement anti-nuclear activist. He uses his knowledge, his skills, and his expertise, to build a homemade nuclear bomb which is carried aboard the small tugboat. Offering a similar kilotonnage as the bomb we dropped on Hiroshima, the plutonium payload packs a fearsome swath of destruction over the small Southeastern city. The terrorist/scientist has ingeniously designed the bomb buried within layers of insurmountable and mathematically obtuse twists of shielding.
The TV movie plays out like an actual breaking news bulletin with all the attendant spontaneous displays of awkward newsmanship and on-the-spot impromptu reports, observations and journalistic forays into artificial sentimentality. At the time of the movie, our culture was regaining its bearings from Ronald Reagan’s attempted assassination, the Iranian’s seizing of the American embassy (and hostages)…it was a turbulent era and the American populace was overly accustomed to the bloated television news coverage of breaking, real-time news. The melodramatic scenario was easy because the actors in this movie, portraying news anchors and reporters, along with the realistically placed footage of the pseudo archival stock footage, was so realistically woven. Watching this movie, you could easily imagine the group of anti-nuclear terrorists was real. You could believe they planted a multi-kiloton nuclear bomb. And as you sat there, memories of vivid on air disasters fed your imagination and it was easy to get lost in this fictional account. You watched as the government soldiers stormed the tugboat and dispelled the terrorists in a self-righteous burst of destruction before embarking on the gruesomely daunting mission of disarming a nuclear bomb which was so cleverly rigged with layers of failsafe mechanisms seeking to defend against its neutralization.
In “real-time,” we watch this fictional portrayal materialize as a frantic race on the part of bomb technicians to control a rapidly deteriorating situation which is hauntingly narrated off air by a Princeton physicist who attempts to explain the intricate rigging of the nuclear bomb’s protective design. And we witness as the race is lost… The bomb technicians cannot disarm the explosive triggers and muddled in the midst of technical terms, we watch as one attempts to flee the tugboat while the remaining desperate technicians attempt to contain the bomb’s undeniable goal. The last few moments of the technician’s lives are caught on tape as they helplessly clip away with instruments of the trade. The bomb detonates. Bars and tones fill the screen. A studio intercut shows distraught news people. They cut to a newswoman who has been planted across the bay while fires rage in the background on the Charleston horizon.
So real, so great, so dark and apocalyptic. The kind of shit my generation did well.
As I was watching the movie I was reminded how today’s media culture does not volunteer anything remotely as powerful as the exaggerated and fearless expression I witnessed in my younger day.
A movie like Special Bulletin could never have been produced for our modern brand of television.
Of course, the threats are smaller now, aren’t they?
In the early 80s, we worried about megaton bombs.
We worried about Russian nuclear missiles which could incinerate an entire American city in seconds.
We worried about dramatic blasts of massive scientific knowledge raining down on our heads from the evil skies. We worried large, and we expressed large. My era was one of foolhardy distorted amazement.
Now. These kids.
This is the age of small worries.
But many of them.
We don’t worry about bombs that are larger than life; we worry about people. We worry about individuals and small groups. We worry about coordinated human motives and actions
We live in a world where we share a common and singular enemy, person or object.
Our fear is not gone. We still fear..but we fear groups, we fear acts, we fear attitudes.
We fear facelessness.
As such, our cutting edge sense of amusement in the modern era is dampened and dulled. Bland.
We live in a bland era because our enemies are bland. We live in a silent time of moderation and subdued inexpression. Who do we fear? Who can destroy us in one gesture?
I once feared Them.
Now I fear You.