DVD PAUSED: Countdown to Looking Glass (HBO, 1984)

April 9, 2008

I was a teenager during the final years of the Cold War, but I remember it well.  Every month, I’d see my local stations run tests of the old EMERGENCY BROADCAST SYSTEM, complete with the disembodied voice, the droning Attention Signal, and the government approved slate cards (which could be scary in and of themselves).  We knew who the enemy was (the Soviet bloc countries), and they knew who we were.

I also remember the movies that would try to show us what would happen if the Cold War ever heated up.  There are three movies that most people will remember vivdly.  Those movies are THE DAY AFTER (available on MGM DVD), TESTAMENT (available from PARAMOUNT), and THREADS (a BBC movie that was only released as a Region 2 disc).  But I remember one other movie in this group because it tried to do something different.  I remember COUNTDOWN TO LOOKING GLASS.

COUNTDOWN was originally aired on HBO in the fall of 1984.  My family didn’t subscribe to HBO in those days, so I missed it.  That was OK, as my history teacher was going to show us THREADS six months later.  It would be another four years before COUNTDOWN would cross my radar.  It wasn’t because I saw it on HBO (we had it by then), but because it was now being broadcast on several independent TV stations around the country.  I saw it one night after coming home from work, and thought it was great.

I said earlier that COUNTDOWN tried to be different from the other three movies I mentioned, and here’s how they did it.  Instead of telling us a story of a group of ordinary people trying to cope with events beyond their control,we are shown the events as a series of reports on a nightly news broadcast.  My internet research tells me that the actors portraying the reporters are all Canadian actors, and not very well-known here.  I honestly believe that adds a level of authenticity to the movie.  To make the reports even more authentic, a few real-life politicians and reporters including Newt Gingrich and Eric Sevareid make appearances to offer their analyses of the crisis being reported.  This movie is also done on videotape, rather than film.  Again, I find it more realistic this way.

The crisis itself could almost be ripped from current headlines.  A group of countries default on loans to the USA.  This leads to an oil embargo headed by a new Soviet backed Iranian government.  The crisis comes to a head when the Iranians begin to impose a toll in the waterways leading in and out of the Persian Gulf.  I don’t think you need to be a Political Science major to figure out how quickly things worsen.  I find that the tension really builds when the network decides to start airing 24 hour coverage of the crisis.  You see the anchorman start to have moments of disbelief at how bad things get.  As the crisis begins to go nuclear, you see the studio workers stop what they are doing to watch the live reports come in from the Gulf.  My gut reaction to scenes like this is that this is EXACTLY what we would have seen in the event of a heated Cold war crisis.  And, those last five minutes can still make my blood run cold.

I should tell you that the title refers to the President’s military command plane.  At the start of the movie, a voice-over tells us the purpose of this plane in the event of a probable nuclear confrontation.  The anchorman repeats the same narration almost word-for-word at the end.

I explained why I won’t get into the reasons behind a studio holding onto a movie, not making it availble for DVD purchase, in my last DVD PAUSED column.  I will say that this title DOES deserve to see the light of day on DVD because of the way it’s done.  I would never take anything away from the human dramas of DAY AFTER, THREADS, or TESTAMENT.  Each is a worthy film in this genre.  But I think COUNTDOWN would make an excellent companion piece, and would offer some contrast to these films.



  1. Is there a way to buy or download this documentary ?
    I’ve searched for it everywhere with no luck.
    Has HBO run it again since ?

  2. I’m sorry to have to tell you, Joe, but this movie is currently not available on DVD-I’ve looked high and low. The last time I saw it on HBO was 15 years ago. I recorded it on VHS, and then wore out my copy. I honestly can’t tell you why HBO won’t make this one available. My guess is that someone with a lot of pull doesn’t want this seen. That tends to be the case most often. Thanks for writing in, though, and feel free to keep posting.

  3. I have tried to get this movie for a long time. It was certainly the best of its genre. Hopefully, it’ll be released in the near future, but I do agree that its plot strikes very close to reality, especially since the first Gulf War.

  4. Dan,
    Thanks for the reply. When i look at the stats for my posts, this post seems to be getting the biggest response. I guess there are a lot of us out there that feel this movie deserves more exposure. Feel free to keep in touch!


  5. when i first seen this movie i was pretty young and it almost made me feel like it was the real thing almost like that classic prank orson wells did with war of the worlds except for this was on tv / cable on hbo and i too have been searching but no avail i even tried hbo
    but they never responded to my inqurarries but i do believe the message it sent out of what could happen in a nucular war or the start of one one scene that was most memrable was when the reporter was in the nimitz when it got struck and sank in the movie
    the people resposable made sure it was going to be real like but luckily it was only a movie it woke me up to the realities of nucular warfare altogether

  6. Been trying myself to get this movie for such a long time. It certainly keeps your interest, not to mention some hair raising & chills.

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