Film / Special Bulletin

Commercial Voiceover: Move on up to RBS!
Chorus: We're movi–
Announcer: We interrupt our regular programming to bring you this Special Bulletin from RBS News...

Thus begins this 1983 NBC Made-for-TV movie about a group of domestic terrorists who claim to have a homemade nuclear bomb aboard a tugboat in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. They want to make a stand against the proliferation of nuclear weapons; unless they receive the detonating modules from all 968 nuclear weapons in the Charleston area, which they will then dump into the Atlantic to render those weapons useless, within the next thirty hours, they will detonate their own bomb.

The media doesn't just cover this event, but is also part of it: an RBS affiliate's field reporter and cameraman, covering an unrelated story on the same dock, are kidnapped during the terrorists' initial gunfight with the Coast Guard. One of the ideas the film examines is whether the presence and promotion of the media makes such events more likely to happen; by the next morning, RBS's coverage is no longer generic interruptions with the above "special bulletin" announcement, but a lively graphic introduction naming the coverage "Flashpoint: America Under Siege," with the stars and stripes, a zoom-in on South Carolina and the city of Charleston, and an up-tempo music track.

The movie was shot on videotape rather than film, recreating the look of a "live" TV broadcast. Faux-impromptu dialogue (hesitations, stumbles, overlaps) and minor technical glitches (as often occur during a live telecast) intensify the effect. The camerawork resulted in one of its four Emmy wins (it also won for Outstanding Drama Special, Outstanding Video Tape Editing for a Limited Series or a Special, and Outstanding Writing in a Limited Series or a Special).

Gives examples of:

  • Adult Fear: Even beyond the already harrowing fear of nuclear attack or a terrorist situation escalating into mass death and destruction, the wrap up notes that scores of children are orphaned after their parents died or went missing after the explosion. One such child, who was only nine years old, is so traumatized that they committed suicide.
  • All for Nothing: The terrorists' attempt to get disarmament; just after they appear to get what they want, a Delta Force commando force busts in, killing all but two of them, with McKeeson killing himself to avoid being taken in.
    • From Bad to Worse: The raid, and the whole effort to protect the nuclear weapons, is invalidated when the Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST) fails to neutralize the booby traps on the terrorists' bomb, causing detonation.
  • Affably Evil: Other than Jim Seaver, who's... not really fit to function in society, the terrorists are largely polite, charming people. Especially at the start, they call the news anchors Mr. Woodley and Ms. Myles, fill their speech with "please" and "thank you," and are clearly making a genuine effort to show that they're doing what they're doing because they care about everyone.
  • Anyone Can Die: Just don't get too attached to any of the characters located in Charleston.
  • Artistic License – Physics: While it makes for an impressive moment, Meg's camera could not have caught the mushroom cloud or the blast wave; the initial flash would have wiped its optics.
  • Biting-the-Hand Humor: Dave McKeeson, during his rant on the media and its behavior, remarks, "NBC would kill its mother for this footage."
  • Deadline News: Steven Levitt, the reporter being held hostage, is at the dock when the bomb goes off, as he's unaware that McKeeson's safeguards have been tripped and it's no longer the timed detonation he has to worry about.
  • Death by Irony: "No, things seem... pretty calm here right now. There's not a–"
  • Delayed Explosion: Averted. The video showing the mushroom cloud has it going off, followed almost immediately by a blast wave.
  • Downer Ending: Charleston becomes America's own Hiroshima. The small silver lining is that the ordered evacuations limit deaths to thousands instead of hundreds of thousands.
  • False Reassurance: Walter Letteau, the Department of Energy (DOE) spokesman, spends most of the first half of the movie assuring everyone that the terrorists' threat is a hoax of the kind they've received in the past, and that it only appears credible because it's actually being covered by the news.
  • Five-Man Band: The terrorists; somewhat oddly, they're not a Five-Bad Band.
  • From Bad to Worse: And then simply to horror.
  • Hope Spot: One for the terrorists, one for the government, in rapid succession. The government announces, slightly late, their intention to comply with the demand and bring the detonators to the dock. The terrorists are celebrating their victory until their television feed cuts out, rousing their suspicions. Then the troops storm the ship, take out the terrorists, and rescue Steven Levitt and George Takashima. All that's left to do is to disarm the bomb. No points for guessing how that plays out.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: "OH, NO, LARRY, WE'RE LOSING IT, NOW! LARRY, COME BACK–"
  • Loophole Abuse: The reason why reporter Steve Levitt and cameraman George Takashima are kept on the ship: the terrorists agreed to release the hostages in exchange for their live feed. Which they proceed to do... the Coast Guard hostages, that is.
  • Oh, Crap!: "OH NO, LARRY, WE'RE LOSING IT, NOW!" The NEST technicians know what's coming, as does Dr. Neils Johanssen, trying to provide layman's commentary on the RBS broadcast. Pretty much nobody else does, until about 15 seconds later...
  • Phony Newscast. See "Viewers are Morons", below.
  • Red Alert: When the bomb defusing starts going seriously south, a warning siren is tripped on the dock by the NEST detection equipment... far, far too late.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: After the NEST technicians accidentally trip one of the anti-tamper devices built into the bomb, one of them panics and bolts from the ship. Not that he has any chance of outrunning a nuclear explosion...
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: In this case, the "shaggy dog" is the entire city of Charleston.
  • Shown Their Work: The effects of the blast, essentially a 10 kt ground burst, in all their Nightmare Fueled glory.
    • After the bomb goes off, Meg and her crew on the U.S.S. Yorktown, 2 miles distant, live or die based on whether they are shielded from the blast. Meg was behind a steel wall and survives with minor injuries; her cameraman was partially shielded and sustained severe burns, while her partner was in the open and killed by the blast. This reflects what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • Silent Credits: As well as the movie having no underscore (the only music comes from network jingles), the end credits run with only faint newsroom sounds.
  • Strawman Political: Subverted. The terrorists aren't swarthy religious types or militiamen, they're a group of all-American anti-nuclear demonstrators (and one Ax-Crazy ringer), whose overall goal is nuclear disarmament, not money or destruction.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: The DOE spokesman comes back later and orders an evacuation of Charleston "as a precaution."
  • Understatement: "Apparent–apparently, we have... lost contact with, uh... Steve Levitt in Charleston."
  • Viewers Are Morons: Despite Charleston's NBC affiliate having disclaimers of it being fake during the entirety of the broadcast, and the film coming with a disclaimer after each commercial break in all airings, there were reports of isolated panic in Charleston.
  • We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties: Goodbye, Charleston.
  • Western Terrorists
  • We Interrupt This Program: How the film starts: In the middle of a RBS promo, the Special Bulletin breaks.
  • Wham Line: You can barely hear it, but in the midst of the terrorists' celebrating that they (apparently) got what they wanted: "What happened to the picture?!"note 
    • As to be expected, the climax is filled with these as the disarming goes terribly wrong:
      • "WHOA, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, what's this voltage?!"
      • "There's about 100 pounds of explosives in there, uh... geared to set off the chain reaction. They have just put a match under the whole pile!"
      • "C'mon! C'mon! C'mon! Oh, we got to get outta here; c'mon!"
      • And, ultimately: "OH NO, LARRY, WE'RE LOSING IT, NOW! LARRY, COME BA-"
      • One of the terrorists makes a passing comment about needing his medication. This rates as an in-Verse Wham Line for the authorities' nuclear experts, as the medication he names is used to treat radiation sickness, suggesting the group actually do have their hands on a genuine nuke or a "dirty bomb" at least.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: There are a couple of these:
    • When last seen, reporter Meg is looking into the camera, nervously asking about radiation. Her fate is never revealed.
    • Frieda Barton is the only terrorist taken into custody, but nothing is mentioned of her after that. The viewer can maybe assume they moved quickly enough with transporting her that she didn't die in the detonation, but even that isn't confirmed.
    • The government's handling of the incident, leading to the loss of a city and a large area of the US, would have undoubtedly led to immediate high level resignations, possibly as high as the presidential level. None of this is referenced in the closing narration, which suggests "news as usual" beyond the fate of the city.