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Remembering How It Was...
w/Ed Flanders
Speaking as a Baby Boomer (born 1948, riding the front of the wave {and on the way down, i fear me}), i can say of my generation that Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend weren't the only ones who expected to die before we got old -- and probably in a nuclear war. (See Ray Davies's "Apeman" [on Lola vs Powerman & the Money-Go-Round {1970}] -- dreaming of running away to a tropical clime and living simply, the protagonist meditates "I don' feel safe in this world no more/I don' wanna die in a nuclear war...")

Shortly after i met Kate, i was giving her daughter Helen a ride to school, and we were discussing the difference between her generation and mine in that regard; Helen had just celebrated her 14th birthday. I pointed out that my 14th birthday was 22 October 1962 -- and that, as it happened, Air Force Major Rudolf Anderson came from my home town of Greenville SC.

Younger people can't really imagine the climate of emotion; in kindergarten and first and second grade in the schools in Cleveland we did duck-and-cover drills. (Despite a lot of bumpf written since, the drills that we were doing in the early Fifties had nothing to do with surviving nuclear attack; they were just ordinary air-raid drills left over from World War 2, which, after all, was only eight years past when i began kindergarten. And they were good for tornadoes, too...)

But we expected it. And then there was Korea, and the beginnings of organised terrorism in the First World, and the paranoia grew...

And thus this TV movie.

The terrorists' demands and MO don't seem all that far-fetched, given the climate of opinion of the time. This was a time when the nastiest terror cells operating in the First World tended to be intellectual political- theoretical types, committed to the Radicalisation of the Masses (the Bader-Meinhoff Gang, the Red Army Faction, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Weathermen...) rather than people who actually had something resembling a real grievance.

And so a group of people have decided to dramatise the danger of nuclear weapons; if they are not allowed to strike a symbolic, internationally-acknowledged blow against the nuclear-war-machine, they will strike a REAL blow against America that will, they hope, bring the realities home to the masses.

And so the stage is set for tragedy.

"Special Bulletin" is, intentionally, made to look as much like real television news coverage as possible -- unlike most TV movies, it is shot on video rather than film (In fact, i wouldn't be at all surprised if the image wasn't intentionally slightly degraded to emphasise that it was tape and not film). While a lot of people may not actually be able to describe what the differences between a film image and a video image are, they are perceptible to almost anyone, and the mind, consciously or otherwise, identifies the video image with "real TV" and the film image with "movies".

Another thing that helps to create the rather scary level of verisimilitude in this film is the fact that it is paced like real TV; its rhythm is keyed to commercial breaks, and this enhances the realism of the recreation of the staccato, punchy nature of television news coverage, both when Something Is Happening and in those long stretches when you have had nothing actually new in hours, but you can't just let the story go, if only because the Competition might get a ratings jump on you if something new happens and they're able to go live with it faster than you. (We saw both of these aspects in the recent coverage of the DC-area sniper story and, further back, of l'affaire OJ.)

((This film is so tied to its commercials that when a local science-fiction club decided to use it as a program item after viewing a commercial-less dub they wound up adding one award-winning or blooper-reel commercial at each break, because without the pauses it just didn't work.))

Aside from the video imagery and the pacing, there is the fact that the production makes use of realistic sound effects, especially the flat, popping sound that real gunshots have when recorded, and the familiar sound of voices just off-mike, discernible but muffled.

One mistake, i feel, that was made was the use of a video-generated special effects shot for the climactic moment of the film; maybe that's what such a blast WOULD look like on video, but it doesn't match my memories of footage of actual open-air atomic test shots.

But the aftermath footage is chilling...

(I have read complaints that the electro-magnetic pulse effects of the blast should render TV equipment that close to Ground Zero in operative; i don't know -- this is a very small burst, and remote-news equipment is built pretty tough...)

And the visuals and account of the after-effects that we hear as a follow-up story are at once frightening, heart-breaking, accurate and a pointed reminder of just how insufficient anything we could realistically expect to be able to do to take care of casualties and destroyed cities from even an isolated nuclear weapons incident would be...

Grim, scary, still a valid cuationary tale (though the potential nuclear terrorists might have different motives and might strike without warning, the results would be the same...) and brilliantly done.

Deserves a DVD release, perhaps with historical material about the Cold War and the terrorists of the day...

27 May 2014

I recently (well, within the last year) found out just how close i (and many others in the Southeast) came to not surviving the period.

In 1961, a B-52 bomber broke up in mid-air near Faro, North Carolina.

The two four megaton Mk 39 Mod 2 hydrogen bombs it carried were released.  (Four megatons is what The Guardian article says; Wikipedia say 2.5 megaton.  Either would have been excess to requirement, in my opinion.)

One was found with its parachute snarled in a tree; one landed in a field.

The government carefully (and hastily) explained that the Mk 39 Mod 2 bomb had four safety devices to prevent accidental detonation - that there had been no danger.

Last year (September 2013), i read articles (in The Guardian and other places) that told a somewhat different story.

The story in The Guardian says (among other things):

Jones found that of the four safety mechanisms in the Faro bomb, designed to prevent unintended detonation, three failed to operate properly. When the bomb hit the ground, a firing signal was sent to the nuclear core of the device, and it was only that final, highly vulnerable switch that averted calamity. "The MK 39 Mod 2 bomb did not possess adequate safety for the airborne alert role in the B-52," Jones concludes.


Each bomb carried a payload of 4 megatons the equivalent of 4 million tons of TNT explosive. Had the device detonated, lethal fallout could have been deposited over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and as far north as New York city putting millions of lives at risk.

Baltimore? NYC?

I lived in Simpsonville SC, rather closer to Faro than any of those cities.

Scary stuff, indeed.