When I first watched Special Bulletin (Edward Zwick, 1983) on TV back in the 1980s, never could I have imagined that one day it would become part of an academic study that I would do about 35 years later. However, that is what happened and it was one of the narratives studied for my article “Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different?“
The premise of the movie (information taken from IMDb) is
A TV reporter and cameraman are taken hostage on a tugboat while covering a workers strike. The demands of the hostage-takers are to collect all the nuclear detonators in the Charleston, SC area so they may be detonated at sea. They threaten to detonate a nuclear device of their own if their demand isn’t met.https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086350/
I still have vague memories of watching Special Bulletin when it was shown. I have no idea how I came across it and ended up watching it. I assume it was shown during the school holidays as I was watching it during the afternoon. I remember being totally drawn in by the style of the programme – which was so realistic that disclaimers had to be used in the USA (see the Wikipedia page for more information). The whole presentation feels very realistic and is cleverly put together.
I think what shocked me more than anything else about the movie (and sorry for the spoilers if you haven’t seen it, but plan to) – is that it doesn’t have a happy ending. It didn’t feel like a typical movie, let alone disaster movie, in that respect. Having a deep interest in nuclear weapons at this time, and particularly the imagery of the mushroom cloud, I was surprised, but oddly delighted, that this movie went that far.
In terms of the revised list of conventions that I developed as part of my article in relation to Aftermath, the movie has 12 out of the 17. It was one of the few disaster movies (English-language or Japanese) that doesn’t feature a family – most include families, it seems, to help provide interest to children as well as to get a reaction from adults, particularly parents, who tend to feel additional emotions of dread if they see children being impacted by something.
As I have written about before, now more than for many years, we need to remind people of the power of nuclear weapons. It is time that a remake of Special Bulletin was made, as the versions that you can find now (which is hard to do anyway) are clearly showing their age in terms of the technology used to make it.
Update (7 February 2022): See also “Special Bulletin” – A Special TV Movie that Needs a Remake