Ed Zwick, who has just been handed the Jack Reacher franchise, has produced, written, and directed (with Marshall Herskovitz) a consistent slate of well-made, respectable films and television shows: Thirtysomething, Glory, Courage Under Fire, Once and Again, Blood Diamond, Defiance. They’re the kind of works that get called adult–they’re about Important Things. They’re released in Oscar season and usually pick up a nomination or two, and allow actors to be socially responsible for acting in them. They’re always competent, and usually forgettable. Yet Zwick and Herskovitz once made something not merely important but truly great over thirty years ago: the lean, vicious 1983 made-for-TV movie Special Bulletin.
The pitch for this would have been obvious: Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast done for television. Five terrorists bring a nuclear bomb into Charleston Bay and threaten to detonate it the next day unless they receive all the nuclear detonators in the Charleston area. The story is simple, the hook is in the telling: the movie starts with a commercial for the fictional RBS Network and then we get “we interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for a special bulletin,” a technique that owes at least as much to SCTV as to Welles. From that moment on, the movie takes place entirely as a series of news reports.
Zwick and Herskovitz’s commitment to the language of media events makes Special Bulletin so compelling. First there’s a direct news report, that stays close to the facts (a reporter and camerman get taken on the boat by the terrorists), but quickly, the network anchors have to take over and start shaping a narrative, speculating, and of course, naming and giving a logo to the event: “Flashpoint: America Under Siege.” As the anchors, Ed Flanders and Kathryn Walker nail the cadences of the meaningless chatter that anchors always do; Flanders in particular does a near-perfect imitation of Dan Rather’s self-regarding speaking style. They interview experts and try to get that one good sound bite out of them. Politicians and spokespeople appear and give the minimum amount of information with the minimum amount of commitment. Stories on the terrorists give a few biographical details, hopefully the kind that can be illustrated with stock footage. (It’s so much less compelling than the footage from the boat itself.) There’s that staple of event journalism, the interview with the Ordinary Citizen, where a single sentence from a single person stands in for how an entire community is feeling. Roxanne Hart has a moving, small role as something else we always see in event journalism: the junior reporter who gets assigned to be in danger. She has the same expression on her face I see on reporters sent to cover hurricanes, professionalism over Get Me the Fuck Out of Here, and her last moment is just devastating.
Simply by accurately imitating the style of network news reporting and concentrating it into two hours, Special Bulletin demonstrates not just the extent of its artifice, but what that artifice does. More than any other, the fundamental narrative of network news is “. . .and everything turned out just fine.” We see, through the cadences of the anchor and the structure of the reports, that events are knowable, understandable, and can be absorbed into our everyday life. That heightens the contrast between the scenes with Walker and Flanders and the scenes from the boat; the terrorists (really, all terrorists) set out to disrupt that narrative and as the story goes on, it looks less and less likely that they can do that. The boat scenes are as believably chaotic and despairing as the news scenes are, well, news-like and fundamentally reassuring; at one moment, no one on board has anything to say, and it comes across as a violation of the news genre. These people are not even willing to be interviewees anymore. David Rasche, best known for his work in Sledge Hammer! and In the Loop gives the best performance as the builder of the bomb. In only a few minutes of screen time, he conveys what his entire group experiences, an idealist who’s already in far over his head. (Rosalind Cash, on the other hand, can’t do much with her character, another version of her Imitation Angela Davis in The Omega Man.)
The storytelling method here makes Special Bulletin realistic in a way that few other movies can achieve; it was the first movie that I completely, helplessly believed was real. (We don’t suspend our disbelief for great fiction–it does the suspending for us.) Zwick and Herskovitz pull a subtle but massively effective move here. Narrative movies depend on us accepting the artifice of what we see on screen as the reality of what happens, but by so thoroughly and effectively showing us the artifice of the news report, the filmmakers make us believe in the reality of what’s happening, because we know we’re not seeing it. They solve the problem of the artificial images of movies by making them deliberately artificial. So many times watching this, I was thinking “this is what the news shows, but they aren’t showing what really matters”–and it was only afterwards that I realized this meant I believed in the reality of what I wasn’t seeing. Special Bulletin is almost a found-footage film; like The Blair Witch Project (and unlike most found-footage works), it understands the value of making us imagine. It incepts us to believe the events.
What makes Special Bulletin great isn’t its media critique; it’s the way that critique is means, not an end. Special Bulletin is a straight-up thriller, one that pins us to our seats for two hours (including commercials), and the elements of critique help with that. Zwick and Herskovitz strip the story down to the most basic and most exciting question, and present it before the first commercial: will the bomb go off? They keep that question right in front of us, with no detours or subplots, all the way to the end. Most of the time, the word “thriller” gets preceded by “action,” but there’s almost no action in Special Bulletin and it’s still insanely tense; it’s almost exactly Hitchcock’s definition of suspense of putting a bomb under the table and not knowing when or if it will go off. In addition to creating a nearly unparalleled sense of reality, they use the media frame to do what’s so necessary for a thriller: carefully give and withhold information. They can make classic suspense beats even more effective this way: at one point, an Expert puts together information about Rasche’s character using things we’ve already seen before. We had the information, but we didn’t know its significance, and finding out raises the stakes. It’s an artificial move that the framing makes look completely natural. Late in the movie, just to make things more agonizing (i.e., drive up ratings), the network puts a countdown clock in the corner of the screen, and of course they would do that. You can’t take your eyes off it, and if it was done in any other movie, it would be laughably manipulative; again, the artifice heightens the sense of reality.
Zwick and Herskovitz never tried anything like this again, so simple, direct, and effective. I worry that they took the wrong lesson from Special Bulletin and felt the need to make Important Statements with their movies, about combat or the diamond trade or whatever else they found important. (Nathan Rabin called this kind of filmmaker the Morning Paper Auteur.) Special Bulletin does say important things, but the first goal of its storytellers was the same as Hitchcock’s or Shakespeare’s: tell the story and keep our asses riveted to the seats while they do it. Perhaps Zwick will get back to this kind of storytelling with the Jack Reacher sequel. We can hope.