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Film: Special Bulletin
Chorus: RBS, we're moving up-
Announcer: We interrupt this program with a Special Bulletin...

Thus begins this 1983 Made-for-TV movie about a group of people who have allegedly placed a home-made nuclear bomb on a boat in Charleston, South Carolina harbor. They want to make a stand against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and demand a beginning to the end of such weaponry. Unless they receive some 400 trigger devices (which would make it impossible for the U.S. to detonate the nuclear weapons requiring those triggers) which they will then dump into Charleston Harbor, they will detonate their own weapon. The U.S. has 48 hours to comply.

We watch as the media doesn't just cover this event, but becomes part of it as a camera crew, covering an unrelated story, are kidnapped as part of the terrorists taking over that part of the harbor facilities. The movie actually asks the question, does the presence of the media make this sort of incident more likely to happen? By the next day, TV coverage of the event continues with a professionally done graphic introduction, "America Held Hostage" and a zoom in on South Carolina and the City of Charleston, along with an up-tempo music track.

During the film, we discover many pieces of information about the terrorists, their motivations, and the media's hunger to cover a story at any cost — even asking if the presence of the media makes this sort of incident more likely to happen. But the big question is: Do the terrorists really have both the technical capacity to construct a nuclear weapon, and obtain the fissile material to arm it, or is this an elaborate hoax? If it isn't a hoax, will the government give in to blackmail or will they attempt to stop the plot with an assault team?

The Department of Energy (which is responsible for civilian control of nuclear weapons), realizing that the leader has the technical capacity to design a nuke (that was his former job) and some of his contacts had the capacity to steal nuclear material, decide to announce a limited evacuation of the City of Charleston as a precaution. Meanwhile, they set up a diversion to pretend to bring the nuclear triggers to the boat, while having an assault team take over the boat on the presumption the Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST) can override any anti-tamper mechanisms the designer might have installed if the bomb is real...

While the assault is happening, on TV no less because of the crew that is still on the boat, a nuclear expert at the network is listening on-camera to the remarks of the NEST team as they disarm the bomb, and realizes from what they are saying that the NEST team has realized they've made a mistake and armed the bomb, as the video cuts off. Subsequent events and video being recorded at the exact moment from two miles away show that there was no hoax, it was a real nuclear bomb, and it went off. The nightly news several weeks later shows the devastation of the city of Charleston, then goes on to the typical problems and strife in the rest of the world.

The movie was shot on videotape rather than film, recreating the look of a "live" TV broadcast. Faux-impromptu dialogue (hesitations, stumbles, overlaps) and technical glitches intensify the effect.


Gives examples of:

  • 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.
  • Anyone Can Die: Heavy emphasis on "anyone".
  • Artistic License - Physics: Meg's camera never would have caught the mushroom cloud or the blast wave; the initial flash would have wiped its optics.
  • Biting-the-Hand Humor: A terrorist remarks, "NBC would kill its mother for this footage."
  • Deadline News: Steven Levitt, the reporter being held hostage, fails to evacuate the area thinking the time limit given by the terrorists still applies.
  • 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: Hiroshima on American shores.
  • False Reassurance: Department of Energy (DOE) spokesman claims there's no danger.
  • From Bad to Worse: And then simply to horror.
  • Hope Spot: The assault team storms the ship, takes out the terrorists, and rescue Steven Levitt and the cameraman. All that's left 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 Steve Levitt and his cameraman are kept on the ship: in exchange for giving the terrorists their live-feed, they had to release the hostages. 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. 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, ending any chance they have of stopping it from detonating.
  • 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 in 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 shielded, surviving with minor injuries; her cameraman was partially shielded and sustained severe burns, and her partner was in the open and killed by the blast. This reflects what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • Strawman Political: Played with; the terrorists aren't swarthy religious types, but a group of all-American anti-nuclear demonstrators (and one Ax-Crazy ringer), whose overall goal is nuclear disarmament, not money or destruction. One of them breaks down crying when one of the Coast Guardsmen shot dies. Unfortunately, the group also happens to include ex-Defense people who specialized in making nuclear weapons. Their bomb is quite real, the bomb builder has radiation poisoning, and time is ticking...
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: The DOE spokesman comes back later and orders an evacuation of Charleston "as a precaution" and "not because there is a real danger".
  • Tempting Fate: "Mr. Woodley, disarming a bomb is the easiest thing in the word; it's equivalent to pulling a plug."
    • He does follow up, though, to say that the trick is getting TO the plug in the first place. The NEST team never even gets that far.
  • Viewers Are Morons - Yes, there were people who thought this was real despite disclaimers when it first aired. Disclaimers ran during every break, at least on the original broadcast. Additionally, the NBC affiliate in Charleston, for obvious reasons, also superimposed the word "FICTION" during the entire broadcast. (It didn't help that the fictional "RBS" affilate's call letters were WPIV, while those of the real-life NBC affiliate were WCIV. A little close for comfort...) As for "other indications," a quick flip of the channel would have shown that no one else was covering this supposedly major news event (of such a magnitude that one would assume all networks would be breaking into regular programming).
  • 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:
      • "WOAH, woah, woah, woah, woah, 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-"
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: When last seen, reporter Meg is looking into the camera, nervously asking about radiation. Her fate is never revealed.
    • 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.

Overdrawn at the Memory BankTelevision Movie IndexA Christmas Carol (1984)
Sledge Hammer!Films of the 1980sThe Star Chamber

alternative title(s): Special Bulletin
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