Film Review: Countdown to Looking Glass (1984)

Countdown Poster

Continuing our theme of the nuclear apocalypse throughout July (and into early August), we take a look at the events leading up to atomic Armageddon! By this, I refer to a docudrama/alternate timeline by the name of “Countdown to Looking Glass.” The majority of the film takes place in the fictional “CVN News Studio” as information is relayed to us after daily time jumps. The central focus is turmoil in the Middle East leading to conflict between the United States and Soviet Union. This conflict erupts into fully fledged Naval combat with nuclear weaponry. As the film says in the beginning, all of this is just speculation and shouldn’t lead to panic. That said, all of the events that happen in this film feel all too real, even if they’re just relayed to us via a news team. So, if you’re safely nestled in your radiation-proof bunker, let’s take a look into the events before the end of the world!

This movie was a TV broadcast originally for HBO. It aired on October 14, 1984 for their American viewers as well as CTV in Canada. While this film is an eerie parallel of the Persian Gulf conflict that followed suit soon after the airing of this film, the movie takes a much bleaker look at what could have happened. All of this happens through a dramatic narrative. Unlike many films of the time, which centered on just the news room, this one had interactions between Waldorf and her boyfriend in terms of the conflict that was unfolding around the world. In fact, it could be said the narrative was different then a lot of movies that were part of the “nuclear war” trend common in 1980s films. While the segments seem a bit cheesy, they do help to alleviate some tension and break up the monotony of endless news clips.

As for the movie itself, the action begins as soon as the film begins! In the prologue, it’s unveiled that an American Ambassador was assassinated in a terrorist bombing of the American embassy. Afterwards, guerrilla forces attack Oman with Russian backing following bank failure in the US caused by South America defaulting on debt. America reacts through a “peace initiative” by invading Saudi Arabia, which is criticized as “flexing muscles” in regards to panic over oil. As one would predict, protests begin to surge throughout the world, despite politicians like Gingrich and McCarthy urging for a slow but steady campaign in the Middle East. Oil tanks get captured within the New Oman regime’s reach, as free passage is blocked and Soviet vs. US relations are strained further. Ships like the Carrier Nimitz are deployed to break out the line along the Persian Gulf. Soviets issue a first offer to leave Saudi Arabia. A day later, a Reconnaissance chopper is shot down in a conflict in Saudi Arabia as oil fields are destroyed, with no assailants caught. Outside the studio, the boyfriend of one of the reporters issues some news via satellites that Soviet tanks have fled the Iran border after a day of patrolling. Also, the issue to pull back was indeed a legitimate one. However, with lack of proper backing and resources (as well as implied sexism against Waldorf), the information from Waldorf’s broadcast is not sent out. Because of this, the Soviet leaders accuse the US of ignoring their statements to pull back. The next day, a standoff between American fleets and Omani gunboats/Soviets submarines begins. But, not after a Dutch oil tanker is destroyed by one of the Omani gunboats. Air command reacts with bombers readied in civilian areas to confuse the Soviets and prepare a counter attack. Meanwhile Waldorf and her boyfriend consider evacuation. As a reporter on the main US carrier covers the action frontline, ships from both sides are under fire. Eventually a nuclear strike hits the carrier and destroys all contact with it. At Washington, Waldorf cover’s the US President’s retreat into a secret aircraft CODENAME:LOOKING GLASS. As it takes off, the emergency broadcasting system takes over the newscast, creating a grim but inconclusive ending.

The movie creates a pretty profound and bleak statement on the aggressive nation of powerhouse nations. As the film began to unravel numerous reports, you knew a big conflict was coming, you knew there would be war. In the post-9/11 age, it’s easy to run for the nearest nuke shelter after reports of attacked politicians, conflicts over oil, and wars on terror; all of these issues are just as relevant today, if not more so. In fact, one could argue that the end of the Cold War and Gulf conflicts only meant temporary cease-fire. Once September 11th, 2001 happened, all of it picked up again. Combine that with the recent reports of the Malaysian air flight being downed by the Ukrainian border and the chaos going on in Gaza and all of that paranoia/anxiety begins to bubble up all over again!

Sure, everything in the movie looks a lot cheaper than your standard HBO feel, but that almost adds to the movie… almost. The cameras weren’t any better than an average studio cam and the lighting seemed to be just enough to keep the set bright and illuminated. But hey, it really adds to that newsroom atmosphere the film establishes and mostly runs with throughout the picture. The only time the low budget seems to get in the way in my opinion was the dramatic pieces between Waldorf and her boyfriend. Beyond the fact the segments seemed hokey to me, I could hardly see what was going on. And when I did, it didn’t look like anything in the nearby area was alive, let alone real. But even in the news room, some of the acting wasn’t very convincing to me. Most of the time, I could get over the somewhat droll performances. At least those were passable in comparison to the scenes outside the news room. Plus, the misinformation regarding the tanks leading to war felt a little heavy handed and driven by plot convenience to propel the dark narrative. That aside, I enjoyed that authentic atmosphere because when things got tense in the news room, you felt it! The appearance of actual politicians as talking heads built upon atmosphere and made things that much more engaging. It was as if your face is glued to the TV screen, violently watching the news in hopes the conflict ends well. But, just like the experts and journalists on the broadcast, you know that you can’t affect a thing and the Cold War’s about to warm up! Don’t just take my word for it, check out that final scene aboard the Nimitz when radioactive light on the camera leads to footage being garbled chaos and then empty static. It’s a chiller and powerful scene tells you everything about what happens next.

It’s a flawed picture, but a chilling political piece that holds up some weight today. If you have some time on your hands, are paranoid about global events, and don’t feel like sleeping well tonight; give this film a watch. Countdown to Looking Glass gets 7 Nuke Blasts out of 10!

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