Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Mushrooms, Real and Imagined

We’ve gotten a lot of rain here on the farm over the last week or so. Recently a couple of these mushrooms have oddly popped up here and there, including that one pictured to the left. They look a little like teed up golf balls from afar, although this one is already approaching softball size.

They come up fast, too -- this wasn’t even there yesterday. When I bent over to snap the photo, I found myself thinking a little about mushroom clouds, and before long an associative-chain of YouTubing led me to rewatching a couple of TV films from the early ’80s that focused on the possibility of modern day nuclear war -- The Day After and Special Bulletin.

Both of these movies appeared on network television on Sunday nights in 1983, with Special Bulletin being shown on NBC in March and The Day After on ABC in November. I vividly remember watching them then, and I don’t know if I really had sat down to see either since.

Both are highly intriguing, with The Day After the more accomplished of the two. Both address the horror of nuclear weapons, with Special Bulletin also attempting some further commentary on news media with the entire movie being presented as a faux news broadcast, sort of like Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds radio show from nearly a half-century before.

In fact, disclaimers are shown throughout Special Bulletin reminding viewers they are watching a “realistic depiction of fictional events.” Even so, just as happened with Welles’s broadcast, there were viewers calling stations who weren’t sure what they were watching wasn’t in fact real.

It’s impossible to watch these movies today without being mindful of the specific historical context of the Cold War as well as the recent Three Mile Island incident and other nuclear-related fears of the day. Chernobyl came a couple of years later, and that, too, weighs on the mind when viewing today. Nor can one watch them now without doing so through the memory lens of the real-life horror of 9/11, an event that resonates in various ways with both films.

In Special Bulletin, an activist group manages to steal plutonium, assemble a bomb, then take hostages in a docked boat in Charleston, South Carolina. Their demands include the turning over of all of the triggers for the nuclear devices located at the nearby naval base, part of a larger design to encourage the reduction of nuclear weapons generally. If their demands aren’t met, they’ll detonate their device.

At one point a couple of talking heads on the news broadcast bring up a poker metaphor when discussing the activists -- or “terrorists,” as they are tentatively described in the film -- and whether they’ve actually obtained plutonium or not.

The analogy they use is an obvious one. “I don’t believe the bomb is real,” says the doubter. “We’re witnessing an extraordinary kind of bluff -- a poker move, simple as that.” Then the other expert responds by declaring the first commentor “wishes to play card games with an entire city” before taking the position that the bomb might be real.

The Day After presents a different scenario, one depicting a rapidly deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. turning the Cold War hot in a relative flash after a quick sequence of aggressive moves. Poker is not mentioned in that film, and the strategizing being employed by both superpowers is suggested in subtle ways that allows some ambiguity while focusing the viewer’s attention much more so on the effects of a massive nuclear strike on citizens.

Was curious to watch both films again all of these years later, and to remember how we were viewing them three decades ago. We’ve grown a lot more accustomed to becoming utterly absorbed by news and entertainment media today, but then it was something quite out-of-the-ordinary to experience. More than 100 million watched The Day After, and they reran Special Bulletin again later, too. The cultural impact of both films (and a handful of others with similar subject matter) certainly “mushroomed” and I suppose could be said still to exert some influence today.

I guess today, though, we’d say of their popularity that they really “blew up.”

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