Transfictional Disavowal

 Here is an article discussing about ‘Special Bulletin’ realistic feaures and their impacts, also drawing connection with the ‘War of the World’ radio program. Since it is a rather long article, I am only putting the link here. Check it out if you are interested in.

Special Bulletin. Transfictional disavowal

By Tijani El-Miskin


A review by Stuart Galbraith IV

A review by Stuart Galbraith IV

   One of the best and most unique television dramas of the 1980s, Special Bulletin (1983) is an extremely tense drama about anti-nuke radicals threatening to explode a nuclear device in a major American city, its story told through simulated network news bulletins. Directed by Edward Zwick (Glory) and co-written and produced by Marshall Herskovitz (Dangerous Beauty), the experimental and groundbreaking mockumentary is much superior to the better-known but more conventional The Day After, a bigger-budgeted production that got a heck of lot more press coverage when it debuted later that same year.

   Though television news graphics and technologies have evolved enormously in the nearly 30 years since its premiere, in other ways Special Bulletin hasn’t dated at all, and the program remains an unnerving viewing experience.

   The film has no opening credits. Instead, the first thing the audience sees is an authentic-looking network promo for various RBS programs, including Four Square (a game show) and Morningstar (a soap). Abruptly, things shift to RBS’s New York news desk, where evening news anchorwoman Susan Myles (Kathryn Walker), eventually joined by co-anchor John Woodley (Ed Flanders), announce that at the Port of Charleston, South Carolina, a group of terrorists have taken a local TV news crew, including reporter Steve Levitt (Christopher Allport) and several Coast Guardsmen hostage aboard a tugboat.

   The five terrorists – onetime nuclear strategist-turned-peace activist Dr. Bruce Lyman (David Clennon), nuclear scientist David McKeeson (David Rasche), African-American poet and underground radical Frieda Barton (Rosalind Cash), meek housewife Diane Silverman (Roberta Maxwell), and a largely unknown gunman (Ebbe Roe Smith) – threaten to detonate a homemade nuclear device (with anti-tampering safeguards) unless the government hands-over the 900-odd nuclear detonators for the nuclear bombs and missiles held in the Charleston area, detonators they plan to dump out at sea. They hope their extreme actions inspire global, grassroots nuclear disarmament. (However, a SANE-like organization later condemns their actions.)

   Details about the terrorists gradually emerge, some residents of Charleston evacuate, but most stay put after the federal government insists Lyman and his colleagues are perpetrating an elaborate hoax. But eventually it becomes clear that some months earlier respected physicist McKeeson stole weapons-grade plutonium from a facility in Washington State, and is probably dying after exposing himself to the intense radiation while building his bomb. One guardsman dies of gunshot wounds, and as the deadline approaches and the government seems unwilling to meet their demands, the situation aboard the tugboat deteriorates and a nuclear detonation, once unthinkable, now seems inevitable.

   In light of Orson Welles’s infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, likewise presented as a series of news bulletins and which sparked a limited but nationwide panic, NBC was extremely worried Special Bulletin might spark a similar reaction. When it first aired, a disclaimer appeared at every commercial break: “The following is a realistic depiction of fictional events. None of what you are about to see is actually happening.” Additionally, the word “dramatization” was superimposed several times during key moments. When Special Bulletin turned up later on pay cable television, the superimposed “dramatization” was gone and the disclaimer appeared only a few times, as is the case with this DVD version.

   Although apparently some viewers still didn’t get the message, NBC nonetheless went a bit too far reassuring viewers that what they were seeing wasn’t real. For one thing, the story doesn’t unfold in “real-time”; its story covers a roughly 24-hour period in about 100 minutes (a brief coda is set several days later), plus there’s no use of real reporters or politicians, though the show does use a lot of news file footage and the network graphics and such are entirely believable. (What the show is missing is the endless waiting and regurgitation of information, which always follows events like this.)

    What it does do extremely well is allow its audience to suspend its disbelief with minimum effort. The filmmakers obviously studied raw and edited news footage, press briefings, newsroom coverage, etc. during various crises. There’s even a brief sequence reminiscent of Herbert Morrison’s famous reporting of the Hindenburg disaster, but most of it seems directly drawn from the media and political chaos following the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in March 1981. In one scene, for instance, Flanders’s anchorman momentarily loses his cool live on the air, recalling ABC anchor Frank Reynolds, who was incensed by conflicting reporters about the status of wounded White House Press Secretary James Brady. (In Special Edition, there’s an “Acting” White House Press Secretary, another nod to Brady’s brush with death.) Flanders’s character seems to be based largely on Reynolds and Harry Reasoner, who unhappily co-anchored ABC’s evening news with Barbara Walters, an awkward arrangement Flanders’s John Woodley shares with Kathryn Walker’s Susan Myles. Walker has Walters’s look, somewhat, but her delivery and overall presentation more directly recalls popular NBC weekend anchor Jessica Savitch.

   Special Edition is as much a criticism of the news business as it is about the threat of a nuclear holocaust, a concern ratcheted up considerably during the Reagan years, resulting not only in this and The Day After in 1983, but also the devastating film Testament that same year and a BBC production, Threads, soon thereafter. But in its criticism of network news, Special Bulletin more closely resembles The China Syndrome (1979).

    If anything, RBS’s coverage is quite restrained by today’s anything-goes standards; no doubt the filmmakers could never have imagined the existence of Fox News, or even CNN’s routinely unethical antics. And yet it impressively captures the distressing showbiz aspects of disaster-coverage in scenes still very relevant today. For instance, McKeeson mocks RBS’s cheesy animated graphics (“Flashpoint – America Under Siege”) and Woodley and his unstated but just-perceptible condescending attitude toward his co-anchor. (Flanders is very good; you can read his character between the lines.) Virtually all the reporting clichés in Special Bulletin still turn up on a daily basis over at CNN and elsewhere.

   When the unthinkable does happen and the reporters and anchors have no clichés left to fall back on, their stunned and honest reactions anticipate those during the terrible tragedies of the Challenger explosion, Hurricane Katrina, the Asian tsunami, and especially 9/11. Eerily, in the background of RBS’s New York news desk prominently stands the World Trade Center.

    Technically the show is excellent; shot primarily on videotape, it recreates the look of network promos, news updates, remote feeds, etc. with great authenticity, and the use of extremely rough, raw handheld footage, overlapping dialogue, etc. adds to the realism.

Video & Audio

   Special Edition is part of the Warner Bros. Archive Collection of DVD-Rs that are pressed-on-demand. Because this was shot mainly on 1983-era videotape, viewers shouldn’t expect something razor-sharp, but it looks perfectly fine for what it is. The Dolby Digital mono (English only, with no subtitle options) is adequate. There are no Extra Features.

Parting Thoughts

    I saw Special Edition when it premiered in 1983 and again a year or two later on pay cable television, but not since. I was surprised at how vividly I had remembered almost every scene, and that despite its familiarity and its dated aspects, how utterly engrossing and disturbing it remains all these years later. A must-see and a DVD Talk Collector Series title.

Find the original article here

Simulated News Broadcast

   ‘Special Bulletin’ was presented as fake news broadcast program with the film maker’s great efforts to make it as realistic as possible. This format of fake news broadcast is very similar to the radio program ‘War of the World’ (1938) which caused panic in the public. (Listen to the whole program in our older post)

    One year after ‘Special Bulletin’ released, a very similar format was employed in the Canadian made movie   ‘Countdown to Looking Glass’.



Also through a simulated news broadcast program, this film depicted a series of events that led to a nuclear confrontation between the US and USSR. However, the later film did not presented entirely as a news bulletin but intertwined with behind the scene scenes revealing the characters’ personal lives. Watch the whole film on Google.

A 1994 film named ‘Without Warning’, although was not related to nuclear issue, had the identical techniques with ‘Special Bulletin’.

This film featurs a breaking news story of meteors cracking to the Earth causing severe damages.

Comparison with the American film we have studied

The comparison of the ‘Special bulletin’ with the‘Taiyo o Nusunda Otoko” (1979) and ‘Manhattan Project’ by Bakarancha is very good. Now I want to compare ‘Special bulletin’ with the American film we have studied in the lecture.

Time line of the films


July: The US tests first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico

August: US drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki


February: ‘The Beginning or the End’ released in the USA


April: ‘Godzilla, King of the Monsters!’ released in USA


January: ‘Dr Strangelove’ released in USA


March: ‘Special Bulletin’ released in USA


‘The Manhattan Project’


January: ‘Blast from the Past’ released in the USA

 Among these 6 films, ‘The Beginning or the End’ (if it can be considered as bad ending, because the main character dead), ‘The Dr Strangelove’ (because the end of the world), and ‘Special Bulletin’ (very clear bad ending) are bad endings, other 3 films are clear happy endings. Compare with the 5 Japanese films, if we put Gojila in the category of not clear bad ending, other 4 Japanese films are bad ending. From this we can see that, broadly Japanese see atomic bomb as a very bad thing, but Americans see atomic bomb as a contradictory thing.

Let us review what functions the atomic bomb has in these 6 American films. In ‘the Beginning or the End’ the atomic bomb was used to destroy Hiroshima and shorten the war. In ‘Godzilla, King of the Monsters!’ the function of the atomic bomb had been deleted from the original Japanese version. In ‘Dr Strangelove’ atomic bomb and the MAD were showed as very evil thing. In ‘Special Bulletin’, atomic bomb became the weapon to destroy atomic bomb. In ‘The Manhattan Project’, the atomic bomb was used to gain awareness of the people in the community about the existing of the nuclear laboratory in ‘their backyards’. In ‘Blast from the Past’, atomic bomb was the origin of fear and threaten. Form these; we can see that ‘Special Bulletin’ and ‘The Manhattan Project’ have many similarities. Both of the characters did not want to set off the bomb, but use the bomb against the nuclear power. We can imagine that if at the end of ‘The Manhattan Project’, they did not stop the bomb successfully, or if at the end of ‘Special Bulletin’, government agrees to reduce the nuclear weapon, these two films will be very similar. And it is very interesting that from the time table we can see that these two films were made during the same period of time.

But why these two films have totally different ending? I think there are two reasons. First is that the teenage have not hurt anyone, but the terrorists group actually killed people. Second is that the terrorists group in ‘Special bulletin’ has caused great panic and chaos in the public (this is also the result of the mass media)

Another film that was made during the cold war time is ‘Dr Strangelove’. The difference between ‘Dr Strangelove’ and ‘Special bulletin’ is that the bomb issue and ethic question were not the main point of ‘Special bulletin’. It did not ask the question that weather America should reduce its nuclear weapon. ‘Dr Strangelove’ hold a strong anti-nuclear view, but in the ‘Special bulletin’, when they were talking about how powerful the atomic bomb would be, they said that the atomic bomb of Soviet Union would be more powerful than this one. I consider this as saying ‘The nuclear weapons are dangerous, but we need nuclear weapon, because if we do not have atomic bomb, it is possible for Soviet Union dropping one in our land.’

Another thing that I want to mention is about the radiation. In the ‘Special bulletin’, there are mainly two parts that were talking about the radiation. The first one was about one of the terrorist Dr.  David McKeeson who made the bomb got the radiation sickness (It sounds familiar~~do you remember the main character of ‘The beginning or the end’?). The second one was after the bomb Meg was worrying about the radiation. All 6 films mentioned radiation in different way. We can know that people pay close attention to it.

Self-reference action of the Media.

     Self-reference is happened in various fields, in film like the form of the director refers to himself or his social context. Examples like a drama tell a story about a drama actor, a novel which’s main character is a novelist or a song which’s lyric is about a singer or musician.

     In this movie, because it is design to be broadcast TV mediated, it took some effort to make it looks real at the same time informing the audience that this is a fiction work. Because of that, it would not be strange to refer TV media or to say institution in the film. There are several scenes which characters mentioned the role of News media in this whole issue. The first time is at the briefing at Whitehouse by the department of energy, the officer stated there were similar incidents before this one. While questioned by those reporters why weren’t those incidents briefed, the officer answered that because in those cases there were not a TV broadcast network deliver the information to every household in America. The second time is that one scholar criticize the media provided the terrorist the mean to spread their information. He argued that the action of the media accelerate the development of this issue. The last time is that even one of those terrorist who is using the news media to complete their plan also criticize the media is exploit this kind of significance. The slight differences between TV designed film and TV mediated news media provide more space for the criticism, make them not directly criticize themselves, also make the audience have more space to accept and think over those criticism.

Controversies over the news media

Apart from the main theme about nuclear terrorism issue, ‘Special Bulletin’ also addresses the controversial about the role of media, especially the news media, in the society.
At the beginning, the terrorist demanded a live feed linked to their ship. The immediate question asked was whether it legal or not providing the terrorist with the feed. The RBS news personnel pronounced this action was to save lives since the terrorists were holding hostages. However, in a later scene, audience learned that despite being accused by the terrorists for making money out of the situation, RBS refused to let go of the feed.
The second criticism was the news media has exaggerated the situation and driven the public into unnecessary panic. This critic was made from the government side as “broadcasting this news to every livingrooms”

But as the thread turned out to be real, we wonder had it not been for the media, how the government and the public would have react. Would there be an evacuation; would there be more or less chaos? These questions are spelled out specifically in the following clip.

Although the situation here is fictional, the questions and critics raised by the film are real and becoming more and more relevant in current societies. As news media often declare themselves as objective and authentic; that their mission is to provide the public with the truth, this film demonstrated that the news media was not just telling the story but becoming a part of it. We need to keep in mind that media is also a profit driven industry; therefore there is no such thing as objective view.
Another controversy is that at what degree the media should remain objective? In this film, we can see that there was no cooperation between the government and RBS news at all. Toward the end, the government force had to cut the feed in order to break into the ship and kill the terrorists. Here, the news objectivity actually hindered the government operation. Next, right after the bomb detonated, despite the female reporter Megan Barclay’s miserable state, Susan Myle insisted on seeing the footage showing the blast. There is also a moral controversy represented here. We all know that the news media make profit selling the news. And within the industry, there is always an intensive competition going on. A reporter mission is to provide the newest information as fast as possible. However, when it comes to a crisis, what is a reporter priority? For example, during an accident, should a reporter hold on to the camera or should he go and help the victims? As the film addresses this issue from multiple perspectives and did not provide its own answer, we are left to think about it.

Comparision with other nuclear terrorist films


  Time line

Limited Test Ban Treaty signed by UK, USA and USSR
China tests its first atomic bomb
First French atomic bomb test in South Pacific
China tests its first hydrogen bomb

July: Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty opens for signatures

France tests hydrogen bomb


March: The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty enters into force.


February: The Treaty on the Prohibition of the Emplacement of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction on the Sea-Bed and the Ocean Floor and in the Subsoil Thereof (the Sea-Bed Treaty) is opened for signature.


May: The United States and the USSR sign two agreements to halt the growth in their strategic arms: the Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems (the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty) and the Interim Agreement on Certain Measures with respect to the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms. These agreements are referred to as SALT I.

May: India tests nuclear weapon, Smiling Buddha, at Pokhran
July: The United States and the USSR sign the Treaty on the Limitation of Underground Nuclear Weapon Tests (the Threshold Test-Ban Treaty).

The Threshold Test Ban Treaty enters into force

May: The United States and the USSR sign the Treaty on Underground Nuclear Explosions for Peaceful Purposes (the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty).

USA tests neutron bomb, which features higher radiation levels with lower explosive force

USA cancels development of neutron bomb following protests against its deployment in Europe

March – Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in USA

June: The United States and the USSR sign the Treaty on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (referred to as SALT II)

October: ‘Taiyo wo Nusunda Otoko’ released in Japan
December – USSR invades Afghanistan

October: ‘Taiyo wo Nusunda Otoko’ released in USA as ‘The Man Who Stole the Sun’
USA resumes its neutron bomb program
Israeli airstrike destroys Iraqi nuclear reactor site

Strategic Arms Limitation Reduction Talks (START) begin between USA and USSR

USA begins Strategic Defence Initiative, AKA ‘Star Wars,’ featuring space based laser weapons

March: ‘Special Bulletin’ broadcasted in USA

‘Special Bulletin’ rebroadcasted in USA


August: The South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty (the Treaty of Rarotonga) is opened for signature.

USSR announces nuclear test moratorium

April: Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in USSR
June: ‘Manhattan Project’ released in USA

September: Mordechai Vanunu divulges details of secret Israeli nuclear weapon program

November – USA violates the terms of SALT II by increasing the number of airborne nuclear bombers

‘Special Bulletin’ shares with two other films that we looked at in class: ‘Taiyo o Nusunda Otoko” (1979) and ‘Manhattan Project’ (1986) the theme of nuclear terrorism. All three films look at nuclear power not on a state-against-state level but on a domestic scale through the fictional situation in which nuclear power fell into the hands of individuals. By comparing and contrasting ‘Special Bulletin’ with each of the other two, I would like to examine what view ‘Special Bulletin’ has on the issue of nuclear power.

First let’s look at ‘Special Bulletin’ and ‘Manhattan Project’. Both were made in the U.S. in the 1980s, the era of nuclear unrest. By looking at the time line above, with India testing its first nuclear weapon in 1974, the nuclear club increased to eight members. The following 15 years, despite a number treaties being signed, the arm race continued to escalate, accompanied by major nuclear accident such as the Three Mile Island accident (1979) and the Chernobyl disaster (1986). These incidents doubled the fear of American- fear of nuclear war and of nuclear contamination which led to antinuclear movement such as No Nuke or NIMBY. Both of the films mention this sentiment in the society. Indeed, the terrorists in both films took antinuclear as the motivation and justification for their action; however, each turned to a totally different direction. The protagonist constructed the atomic bomb to show off his talent (as usually seen in the boy genius films) and to prove the existence of a disguised nuclear developing institution. He had never had the intention to detonate it. People in the film did not concern about the nuclear power plant itself but about its location close to the residence area. The fear depicted in ‘Manhattan Project’ is not about nuclear weapon but more about nuclear power’s side effects. Here, the terrorist was portrayed as a hero while the government was seen in a negative light. The film ended happily; the bomb did not explode; nobody was hurt, the nuclear institution identity was made public. The bomb was made into a positive instrument that bought about cooperation, family reconciliation and justice. In ‘Special Bulletin’, the situation was much more serious. Started out with a shooting scene, the tension remained high throughout the film with a series of terrible events: the coast guard died, the city turned in to chaos as people grew hysteretic, and the terrorists themselves broke down emotionally and get killed. There was a moment of hope when the terrorists were killed and the government took over the bomb. The audience, whose viewpoints being identified with the public in the film, were relieved for a moment but then the bomb went off destroyed the whole city. The film ended nihilistically. The government here was also portrayed as incompetent; however the terrorists were definitely not heroes. Although they justified their action as seeking peace through unilateral disarmament, in the eyes of the audience, they were condemned as terrorists. By developing the story toward a grave direction and choosing a tragic end ‘Special Bulletin’ carries a straight forward antinuclear message.

Although made in two different cultures, ‘Special Bulletin’ and ‘Taiyo o Nusunda Otoko’ share significant similarities, especially the degree of seriousness and the nihilistic end. In ‘Taiyo o Nusunda Otoko’ there was also a moment when everything seems to be under control but then the story changed direction drastically and ended tragically with the destruction of Tokyo. Both films carry a strong antinuclear message. The difference is the terrorist in ‘Taiyo o Nusunda Otoko’ did not act out of a noble cause. Constructing the bomb purely for his self-interest, he did not even hesitate detonating the bomb using the only justification “because the city was dead already”. He had nothing to lose. The audience may perceive him as a psycho who had been destroyed both physically and emotionally by the bomb. ‘Taiyo o Nusunda Otoko’ answered its question ‘WHAT IS THE USE OF NUCLEAR BOMB?’ in a total denial manner. On the other hand, the terrorists in ‘Special Bulletin’ were presented in a dilemma. Since the terrorists themselves were breaking down as the deadline approached, they certainly did not want to have to scarify the whole city including them and their own family lives. They were even killed before the bomb exploded. Here, the government somehow took all the blame. Had the government not pushed the situation to such an extreme, thing might have been different. Had the government subjected to the terrorist demand, things might have been better. The film made the explosion as something out of control of both the terrorists and the government, as a we-had-no-other-choice situation. This reminds me of how American government justified the use of atomic bomb on Japan as a necessary step to end the war and to save life.