Found Footage 101: ‘Special Bulletin’ (USA, 1983)

✻ Found Footage 101 continues with a film which, while not strictly speaking ‘found footage’, was a huge influence on the genre…


“The following program is a realistic depiction of fictional events.  None of what you are about to see is actually happening.”  So warned the opening text of this American TV movie (and wisely, on original transmission this was again shown around each commercial break).  For the first time, the vast majority of viewers did not mistake this for a live broadcast depicting the possible end of life as we know it.  History has already shown that this was the likely conclusion of most viewers, and given the terrifying topicality of the film, it was highly necessary.

In 1983 the world really was poised for nuclear holocaust, the Cold War having heated to a degree not seen since 1962, and the news was daily reporting on increasingly grim developments.  Hindsight tells us that the unthinkable never actually happened – and in the reality of 2016 such a situation seems quite hard to imagine – but at the time the possibility of sudden death raining down from above seemed alarmingly real.

Okay, so strictly speaking this isn’t found footage, but the genre didn’t exist at this point, and this really is a stunningly good movie, influencing many of the films that followed.

Plot Teaser

On live TV a group of eco-terrorists threaten to detonate a thermonuclear device unless the US government begins unilateral disarmament.

You’ll Like This If You Like…

The news, reality TV or ‘The China Syndrome’.

Spoiler Free Review

An exceptionally well-made (and Emmy-winning) TV movie, this really deserves to be seen.  It’s intelligent, exciting and highly influential.



The fictitious RBS news station in New York and their reporters in Charleston, South Carolina.


A question the film refuses to answer: there are no simple solutions here.

Why Are You Still Filming?

A question asked more profoundly here than in any other found footage film.

Review and Analysis



A bunch of particularly intelligent terrorists – most of them formerly employed by the Department of Defense – hold America to ransom and demand the disarming of the 968 nuclear weapons located in the port of Charleston – a major staging area for America’s nuclear defence.

If the premise itself is incredibly simple, the events are never treated as such.  Instead we are presented with a series of fascinating discussions about the nature of the nuclear deterrent and the role of the media, set against the backdrop of a tense hostage thriller.

The plot kicks off almost immediately as a reporter, covering a dockworker strike, actually films the terrorists shooting coastguards and hijacking a boat before he too is taken hostage (pleasingly – and in a very impressive anticipation of the developing ways in which the news interacts with developing media – a tourist films the whole event on Super 8 film, giving us genuine footage within the footage).  Soon a live link is established with the reporter as the terrorists make their demands.  Initially the authorities are sceptical, but once the terrorists reveal how they acquired their plutonium, and show their device on live TV, people quickly believe.


As RBS News (a fictional station) increase their coverage (bringing in a whole range of jazzy graphics to illustrate the situation – there’s a particularly good computer-animated depiction of what the explosion would do to Charleston) the situation becomes horribly exciting and leads to a great deal of debate about the moral authority of the news, and if they should even be giving terrorists a platform.  Reporter Merritt Cunningham attempts to summarise the situation: “As if the coverage of the event were more important than the event itself.  That’s become a fact of life stories like this.  Television is a presence that no one can ignore: not the police, nor the terrorists.  It has become witness to the story, yet part of the story, and it will probably remain that way as long as people watch the news.”



As the news anchors who are holding the film together chip in with their own thoughts, there’s an astonishingly meta moment when the terrorists (who are naturally watching TV too) interrupt with their own opinions on the matter, condemning the news completely.  It’s this level of intelligence that elevates the film from being simply an effective thriller, and no one offers any answers throughout – questions are asked, and the viewers are left to make up their own minds as to the rights and wrongs of the situation.

Once Navy SEALs have stormed the ship and shot the terrorists dead (a shocking moment, as we have by now spent quite some time with them and come to know them) the film could easily have ended, its job done.  But, no, the film continues and really hammers the point home: we see the dead terrorists brought ashore, the news unflinchingly showing the bloodied bodies of people we know.  And then the bomb explodes.

It’s a shocking moment because it’s so unexpected.  Rarely in this sort of film does the worst happen, but here it does, and it plays out as horrifically as one would expect.  Stock footage is used very skilfully to create the impression that Charleston has truly been destroyed, and the scenes grow increasingly disturbing as we spend time with a journalist on the scene.  As she picks glass from the back of her dead cameraman she realises that she’s going to die too – despite surviving the blast she’s now thoroughly irradiated, and more gory scenes of people burned, bleeding and mutilated follow.  It’s an incredibly powerful ending which has the desired effect – the viewer is left reeling.

As the film closes on a fresh news report of another story (because the news never ends – it simply moves on) the viewer is left to ponder just how possible the film is, and who was right after all.  It’s a very sobering piece of film, and incredibly well made.  The footage is never less than believable and the tone is more intelligent than it would be were this being made today.

It’s not true found footage, but given the influence of the film it deserves to not only be seen, but to be remembered.


Briefly released in the United States in 2010 by Warner Brothers as a manufactured-on-demand DVD (available for only one year) this now commands silly prices on eBay.  It’s almost worth paying the asking price (or at least emailing Warners to ask them to re-release it).  It’s never been released anywhere else.

✻ You can watch ‘Special Bulletin’ in its entirety on YouTube.

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  1. I actually Managed to pick it up for a decent price on Ebay but that being said i Wish HBO would Re-Release, Countdown to Looking Glass as that never got a release Period

  2. I have an interesting addendum for your article. If you look up the film on Wikipedia, you will see that after the original broadcast, which had many disclaimers, Special Bulletin was rebroadcast in 1984, this time with a lot fewer disclaimers and then only on the commercial breaks and not during the film action. Well, many aware of this film might not realize this but there was at least a third broadcast years later on a cable network and this time there were no disclaimers and I believe it was heavily edited, most likely purposely to make it seem more real. I don’t remember if I stopped watching it or if the end was edited out or if maybe someone at the channel pulled the plug on it but I never saw the end showing Charleston’s devastation and the closing credits. I know this because I have since seen the whole movie. The last part I saw on air was Ed Flanders’ final on screen lines. I wish I could remember on which channel and exactly when the airing took place but it has been too long since and was so even by the time I finally discovered the name of the film more than a decade later. I remember where I was living so it would have been between 1989 and 1993. But at the time, I didn’t have a computer, the internet was still in its infancy, I didn’t have a cellphone and I didn’t even have a car. I was home alone flipping channels when I found it the first time well into the broadcast. I watched a few minutes until a commercial break and then flipped channels some more before coming back to it again. That first time, I wanted to find something different to watch…lest you think me cold, I’ve never been a big fan of broadcast news. But I came back to it again a little past half the film and this time it had my attention. It seemed so real. The cable channel even eliminated the commercial breaks during the most tense moments, especially about when the blast occurred. I did some more channel flipping during and after the broadcast just to try and get corroboration. I remember thinking that it seemed a little dated…clothing, hair, vehicles…but not enough to be convincing, not at the time. But shortly after the film, regular programming resumed on the channel and no other channels had any coverage at all. And the next day, there was nothing about it in the newspapers. So I knew it had to have been a movie. I just didn’t have proof until many years later, though I have yet to figure out which channel had aired it. But at the time, it was very shocking and provocative. I doubt anyone would be able to pull off something like this today. We’re too connected. But then I never would have thought something like the Orson Welles War of the Worlds radio broadcast could have happened again, let alone myself and so many others be taken in by it. But Special Bulletin did just that…in each of the airings I know of.

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