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Film / Special Bulletin

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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 and one of director Edward Zwick's pre-Hollywood works, 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 recreates the look of a "live" TV broadcast, being shot on videotape rather than film, with faux-impromptu dialogue (hesitations, stumbles, overlaps) and minor technical glitches (as often occur during a live telecast) intensifying 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).

More than a decade later, the same formula was used again, only in an alien invasion context, for 1994's Without Warning.


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.
  • 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. Not to mention the EMP would likely have destroyed all electronics in the near vicinity.
    • The filmmakers appear to have misunderstood the term "firestorm" as a fanciful way of describing a large conflagration. If Charleston really did become a firestorm, the air would be thick with black smoke and the fire would be using up all the available oxygen, suffocating people to death. The reporter would most certainly not be able to run around the streets of Charleston burning, yelling into a microphone with his suit completely unscathed.
  • Biting-the-Hand Humor: Dave McKeeson, during his rant on the media and its behavior, remarks, "NBC would kill its mother for this footage."
  • Bittersweet Ending / 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. However, just to twist the knife a bit, the closing narration makes passing reference to one child who committed suicide due to the stress of the event.
  • Bookends: The movie starts with RBS announcing a new game show premiering "on most of these RBS stations". It ends with Susan Myles announcing "more news later on most of these RBS stations".
  • Deadline News:
    • Steven Levitt, the reporter being held hostage, is still 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.
    • Meg Barclay and her cameraman, who had set up two miles away on board the USS Yorktown, survive the explosion itself, while their third crew member is killed. Both, however, are seemingly stranded in the city in close proximity to ground zero of the blast, directly exposing them to the resulting radiation. Whether they survive or not is never revealed.
  • Death by Irony: "No, things seem... pretty calm here right now. There's not a–"
  • Death of a Child: 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.
  • Death Seeker: McKeeson, arguably. It's implied he was the one primarily responsible for the construction of the bomb and also seems to have the least reservations of any of the terrorists about setting it off. It's later revealed that he contracted radiation sickness and in all likelihood leukemia while building the bomb, and a psychologist on the news cast points this out as a sign that he's willing to carry out the threat because he's already a dying man.
  • Delayed Explosion: Averted. The video showing the mushroom cloud has it going off, followed almost immediately by a blast wave.
  • 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 / Western Terrorists: The terrorists; somewhat oddly, they're not villains.
  • Foreshadowing: When showing off the nuclear bomb, David McKeeson makes it pointedly clear that not only is there a series of anti-tamper devices built in that can and will set off the bomb, but that only he knows how to disarm the bomb. Once he kills himself during the raid near the end, the NEST technicians tasked with disarming it ultimately set it off by accident.
  • For Want of a Nail:
    • Had David McKeeson not killed himself, the NEST technicians could have avoided tripping the anti-tamper device that set off the bomb.
    • WPIV Reporter Steven Levitt and his cameraman George Takashima were initially at the Charleston docks to report on a workers' strike. Unfortunately this ultimately leads to them being at ground zero of the nuclear blast.
  • 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.
  • Glasses Pull: Evoking Walter Cronkite, Press Secretary Robert Grafton does this when announcing the detonation of the bomb in Charleston.
  • 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–"
  • The Last Dance: It eventually comes to light that David McKeeson is dying from radiation sickness, and as such, is willingly taking part in the nuclear bomb threat because he's going to die no matter what happens.
  • 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 ("They have just put a match under the whole pile!"). Pretty much nobody else does, until about 15 seconds later...
  • Old Media Are Evil: One of the main themes of the program is not only if the media should give terrorists exposure to national airwaves, but if the mere presence of the media makes these kind of attacks more likely. Several characters debate the ethics of allowing RBS to broadcast the feed from the tugboat (though almost none of them note they were more or less forced to do it by the terrorists holding their reporter hostage) and later on McKeeson accuses RBS of exploiting the crisis for the sake of higher ratings.
  • Phony Newscast: The show is in the format of a live television broadcast covering a terrorist attack at the Charleston Navy Yard.
  • 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.
  • Right Man in the Wrong Place: Steven Levitt was originally trying to film a report on a dock workers' strike when the Coast Guard drove in and got into a gunfight with the terrorists, whereupon he and his cameraman are taken hostage.
  • 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. The question of whether Meg and her cameraman are destined to die of radiation, however, is left unanswered.
  • 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 as Susan Miles reads the news of the aftermath of the blast and moves on to stories elsewhere in the world.
  • Spot the Thread: After the feed in the tugboat's TV goes out, John Woodley personally tells Bruce Lyman that the reason is that there was a power failure at a transmitter in North Charleston. The television transmitters for Charleston are in Awendaw.
  • 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."
  • Tempting Fate: One of the nuclear experts, while the NEST technitions begin disarming the bomb, states that disarming a bomb is easy. "It equivalent to pulling a plug. The problem here is getting to the plug..."
  • Understatement: "Apparent... ...apparently, we have... lost contact with, uh... Steve Levitt in Charleston..."
  • The Unreveal: Absent from the closing narration is any indication as to whether Meg and her cameraman survived.
  • We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties: Goodbye, Charleston.
  • We Interrupt This Program: How the film starts: In the middle of a RBS promo, the Special Bulletin breaks.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: The terrorists consider themselves to be this, and they actually manage to come off as such a few times. They're all saddened by the death of one of the Coast Guardsmen they shot at when they arrived at the dock (with Barton giving him what could be considered a eulogy), Silverman nearly gives herself up after her husband calls her and tells her that her kids have been watching the TV coverage, and Lyman makes it clear that he really doesn't want to detonate the bomb, he just feels there's no other way to get the US on the path to nuclear disarmament. The only two exceptions are Seaver, who isn't quite right in the head, and McKeeson who was exposed to Plutonium while building the bomb and has arguably become a Death Seeker.
  • Wham Line:
    • David McKeeson makes two passing comments that are highlighted by one of the nuclear experts: "What did I bust my guts for?! Throwing up 17 days in a row!" and a offhand mention of needing to check his white blood count. These two remarks are concluded to be proof that A) McKeeson had contaminated himself with plutonium and B) the group actually do have their hands on a genuine nuke or a "dirty bomb" at least.
      David McKeeson is a very dangerous man... because he knows he's dying already... and the bomb doesn't hold any danger for him anymore.
    • 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 
      • Similarly, as the terrorists are trying to figure out what is happening, we cut back to a shot of the tugboat, and some men sneaking on board.
        Susan Myles: Oh my god... oh my god, those are troops.
    • 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-"
  • Wham Shot: "We saw it, didn't you see it? Look... Look... Look... just look at it, it's on fire... everything's on fire..."
  • 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. There is no reference in the closing narration to her fate.
    • 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.