Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Disaster Film Olympiad: Countdown To Looking Glass

Countdown To Looking Glass is an unlikely name for a film but it has a similarly unlikely premise: financial instability caused by a banking collapse suddenly intensifies the significance of a regional dispute in the Middle East, one that quickly descends into a proxy war between the Soviet Union and NATO forces which threatens to spill over into a global conflagration. None of this could ever happen.

As the new Soviet-backed, some say puppet, regime get down to business in Oman, the Western news media swing into action to help placate and inform the viewing trillions. The responsible souls of the major news outlets understand the significance of their role and would never dream of trying to spread panic or propaganda. They are our true heroes.

The disaster movie-as-faux-real-time-news-coverage is not an unusual concept, nor did it begin with Countdown To Looking Glass - 1983's Special Bulletin is a notable earlier example. However, Countdown has a few interesting twists and tweaks to the format designed to keep things fresh and interesting. Firstly, they engage the services of real life contributors: veteran American TV news stalwarts Eric Sevareid and Nancy Dickerson both appear as themselves as a senior analyst and senior reporter respectively. Additional opinion is provided by US Senator (and five-time former Presidential candidate) Eugene McCarthy, defence analyst Lincoln Bloomfield and Congressman (and all-round right wing diarrhoea cannon) Newt Gingrich. Although it is perhaps debatable as to the exact degree which each of the above understood what was actually going on, it nevertheless adds an interesting vérité to proceedings.

Patrick Watson and Newt Gingrich in Countdown To Looking Glass (1984)
Don Tobin reports in Countdown To Looking Glass, shortly before kissing his ass goodbye

The second change to the format is that the real time news coverage is broken up by portions of melodrama, dealing with the real lives of both the lead anchor Don Tobin (played by Canadian news veteran Patrick Watson) and Washington reporter Dorian Waldorf (Helen Shaver). We watch on day by day as an increasingly anxious Tobin yaks on to his wife about the likely outcome of the unfolding crisis and, more significantly for the story, we see Waldorf's romantic relationship with a White House staffer lead to exclusives, high anxiety and heartbreak. Having gone to the trouble of getting real world contributors to weigh in on an entirely fictional story, these soap opera-style interludes could have been an eccentric move on the part of the producers. But oddly, it works: Shaver's story in particular has some very interesting and incisive points to make about the way that news events and the news media have become so interdependent as to have become self-sustaining; the exclusive story she uncovers from inside the Oval Office seems to have the potential to help defuse the spiralling situation only to be held back by the station's editorial policy.

It's all so grindingly predictable. This would ordinarily make for a damning condemnation of any film, but in this case it is not: the unfolding news coverage portions of the piece are done well enough that any despondency you feel tends to be despondency at the worst excesses of global politics and its vainglorious pride, its high ideals at the expense of the lives of its people. Sobering stuff, not least when - on the cusp of a nuclear exchange in the Strait of Hormuz - Newt Gingrich justifies the action as being crucial to the United States' vital stewardship of freedom and democracy around the world. Gallingly, this is something which required no acting talent at all on the Congressman's part because it also happens to be what Gingrich (in company with all of his contemporaries on the right of American politics) really thinks. Thanks, America.

Countdown To Looking Glass gets a spine tingling EIGHT out of ten Disaster Points.

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