“The world’s ending! Let’s watch the news!”
That, in a nutshell, is the main theme of the 1984 film, Countdown to Looking Glass. It’s a film that imagines the events leading up to an atomic war between the United States and Russia. It’s designed to look like a newscast. A distinguished anchorman named Dan Tobin (played by a real-life anchorman named Patrick Watson) gravely discusses the conflict between the two countries. Another reporter (played, somewhat jarringly given the film’s attempt to come across as authentic, by Scott Glenn) reports from an aircraft carrier. We see a lot of stock footage of planes taking off and world leaders meeting and people fleeing from cities.
There are a few scenes that take place outside of the newscast. They involve a reporter named Dorian Waldorf (Helen Shaver) and her boyfriend Bob Calhoun (Michael Muprhy). (If your name was Dorian Waldorf, you would kind of have to become a television news reporter, wouldn’t you?) Bob works for the government and has evidence that the world is a lot closer to ending than anyone realizes. Dorian tries to put the evidence on air but Dan tells her that they can’t run a story like that with just one source. It would be irresponsible…. when was this film made? I guess 1984 was a lot different from 2020 because I can guarantee you that CNN, Fox, and MSNBC would have had no problem running Dorian’s story and creating a mass panic.
(If Dan Tobin’s ethics didn’t already make this film seem dated, just watch the scene where Tobin announces that, because of the growing crisis, the networks will now be airing the news for 24 hours a day. From the way its announced, it’s obvious that this must have been a radical and new idea in 1984.)
Still, despite those dramatic asides, Countdown to Looking Glass is largely set up to look like a real newscast. We get stories about people naively singing up to serve in the army because they think war will be fun. We get interviews with a group of experts playing themselves. (The only one who I recognized was Newt Gingrich.) Everyone discusses the dangers of nuclear war and also whether or not humanity could survive an exchange of nuclear weapons. No one sounds particularly hopeful. Dan Tobin says that he always believed that nuclear war was inevitable but that the sight of all of the destruction would cause the combatants to come to their senses. That sounds a bit optimistic to me and the film suggests that Dan has no idea what he’s talking about.
In the end, Countdown to Looking Glass is a victim of its format. The newscast itself is rather dull, as most newscasts tend to be. Even the scenes that take place outside of the newscast tend to feel rather awkward, as if Murphy and Shaver were recruited for their roles at the last minute. In the end, Countdown to Looking Glass works best as a historical artifact. This is what a news report about the end of the world would have looked like in 1984. Watch it and compare it to how the news is covered in 2020.
Speaking of watching it …. well, it’s not easy. It’s never been released on video but you can watch it on YouTube. The upload’s not great but that’s pretty much your only option.