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Film / Countdown to Looking Glass

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Countdown to Looking Glass is a 1984 Canadian Alternate History and Speculative Fiction film starring Scott Glenn and Helen Shaver among others, centered around the events that lead up to a nuclear war between the USA and the Soviet Union, as depicted in a series of evening newscasts that becomes a 24 Hour News Network.

Notable for its realism at the time (though not so much anymore) and for occasionally being Harsher in Hindsight. One of the less famous of the nuclear war movies of the 1980s along with Threads, The Day After, and World War III. Notable along with Threads for being on the "hard" end of the Speculative Fiction spectrum in that, at the time, such an attack could have happened exactly as it depicted and that it even bears some relevance in the present.

It is available in its entirety on Youtube.

Tropes included in this film are:

  • Alphabet News Network: The fictional news network taking center stage is CVN. We're not privy to what "CVN" is supposed to stand for, outside of the Meaningful Name (see below).
  • Alternate History: Countdown to Looking Glass makes it clear at the very start that this is meant to be a "what if" scenario, and not simply 20 Minutes into the Future.
  • Apocalypse How: Compared to its contemporaries, Countdown to Looking Glass doesn't show the full nuclear exchange or the aftermath. The film instead alludes to the apocalypse unfolding, starting with the presumed exchange of tactical nuclear exchange in the Persian Gulf, evacuation of the President and White House staff, and then with the activation of the Emergency Broadcast System. That being said, the reports from CVN leading up to the end give the sense that everyone in the world is anticipating Societal Collapse or outright Species Extinction.
  • Apocalyptic Log: The film explicitly says at the start that "you will witness a series of events reported by the evening news on television" that (in the film at least) leads to World War III.
  • Book Ends: The film begins and ends with a video clip of Looking Glass taking off.
  • California Doubling: More like Canada Doubling. The entire production was made in Canada but was supposed to be occurring in the US. This becomes very, very obvious at points.
  • Deadline News: Surprisingly averted in the case of Michael Boyle, aboard the USS Nimitz in the end when the nuclear war begins, as he's standing on the deck of the aircraft carrier when a nuclear depth bomb goes off to destroy the submarine, and also manages to survive a Soviet nuclear weapon exploding within the carrier group, as he was inside the carrier's island at the time and was shielded from the worst of the initial burst of radiation. That being said, his fate is left unknown, as the incredible amounts of radiation in the atmosphere completely block out his television feed, and worse still, a third explosion is heard just before it cuts out altogether.
  • Downer Ending: Once you go nuclear, you can't go back.
  • Emergency Broadcast: At the end of the film, the Emergency Broadcast System is activated with an EAN.
  • Emergency Presidential Address: Of the "not the President, we're all screwed" variety.
  • Everybody Smokes: That said, for being set in the 1980s and during the Cold War becoming very, very hot it is a Justified Trope.
  • Hope Spot: Several times. Unfortunately, neither reason nor an Intrepid Reporter can stop the race to war...
  • Just Before the End: The film covers a span of nine days, concluding with full-scale nuclear war.
  • Mass "Oh, Crap!": An interesting one that doesn't involve mass rioting and chaos. Instead, as the crisis threatens to bring the U.S. and U.S.S.R. into direct conflict, CVN reports on an organic prayer meeting occurring in Hiroshima, with some reported to have traveled across the country to attend. In addition to reports of people evacuating large cities like New York City, across America schools close early with no intention of reopening the next day. Events nationwide also get canceled. Don Tobin describes it as a growing "feeling of prudence and restraint, as the only response we have to events we cannot control."
  • Meaningful Name: CVN is the network the film centers on, and it is also the US Navy designation for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, such as the Nimitz (CVN-68). Making the link even more explicit, the logo for CVN looks similar to military stencil.
  • Last Note Nightmare: The last few moments of the film show Looking Glass taking off as the Emergency Broadcast System activates. Then, as the plane gets airborne, the screen freezes and there's a piercing high pitched note akin to tinnitus, as if the network's already been destroyed by a nuclear attack.
  • Lost in Transmission: In regards to Deadline News above, there were two nuclear bombs detonated outside of the Nimitz while Michael Boyle was reporting, the first nuke detonated underwater while Michael was reporting on the flight deck (with Michael assuming it was a nuclear depth charge dropped by one of the Nimitz's picket ships to attack a Russian submarine), the second nuke detonated much closer and shook around but didn't sink the Nimitz. The sound of another explosion can be heard before the broadcast cuts out, but it is never elaborated whether this is the carrier exploding, or a second Soviet nuke going off.
  • Newscaster Cameo: Eric Sevareid. Newt Gingrich also appeared. The main anchor in the film is played by Patrick Watson, a well known and recognizable Canadian TV journalist in one of his few acting roles.
  • Nuke 'em: When the Nimitz battle group reaches the Persian Gulf, what's thought by Michael Boyle to be a nuclear depth charge is used on a Soviet sub that slips into the battlegroup and gets too close to the Nimitz. Boyle isn't able to find out if someone in the fleet went rogue, or who even in the fleet had launch authority—not that it matters, because the Soviets retaliate with tactical nuclear weapons of their own. And from there it goes global.
  • Oh, Crap!: A chain reaction Oh, Crap! at that: Mick / Michael sees the explosion of the first nuclear bomb of World War III behind him, and when the video relays this to the studio, before he has time to speak, the anchor Don has his Oh, Crap! moment.
  • Phony Newscast: Unlike similar productions like Special Bulletin, however, the film isn't completely shown as a newscast, as it cuts away for dramatic sequences.
  • Tempting Fate: As newscaster Don Tobin says in the film:
    Tobin: Reasonable people, once they've looked the Devil in the face, aren't going to shake hands with him.
  • This Just In!: As to be expected of a news network reporting on a crisis—
    • Shortly after the announcement that CVN News is shifting to twenty-four hour coverage, right as he is about to cut to a State Department briefing, Don Tobin is handed a bulletin announcing that the government ordered the shutdown of all nuclear power plants as a precautionary measure.
    • The most poignant one happens at the very end of the film, when Don Tobin announces "here's a bulletin that's just come in" and it turns out to be about Air Force One taking off to join Looking Glass in the air. The "countdown to Looking Glass" is over.
  • 24-Hour News Networks: On the eighth day of the crisis as the Nimitz battle group approaches the Persian Gulf, Don Tobin announces that CVN News will remain on the air until further notice.
    Tobin: Broadcasting twenty-four hours a day is a big job, and if we seem to trip over our feet from time to time, we're gonna ask you in advance to bear with us.
  • Watch the World Die: Having just watched the tactical nuclear warfare unfold in the Gulf, with full-scale nuclear war minutes away and the Emergency Broadcast System about to activate, a bewildered Don Tobin spends the last few moments he has on air reflecting on what one of the pioneers of nuclear weapons policy had told him about the inevitability of an exchange.
  • We Interrupt This Program: A CVN News Alert on the fifth day reports on the battle between American and unknown aircraft in Saudi Arabia. We're actually shown an executive ordering the interrupt to the network's master control over the phone, which required him to provide an authorization code.