TV Review: ‘American Blackout,’ ‘War of the Worlds:’ Tapping Into Fear in Different Eras

NatGeo movie and PBS documentary create parallel visions of a U.S. on the edge

American Blackout War of the Worlds

Although the idea isn’t new — it’s essentially another “Blair Witch Project” knockoff — “American Blackout” seems especially well timed, and perfectly tailored to the semi-hysterical nature of the media zeitgeist. Niftily cobbled together via a mix of scripted verite-style camcorder footage and real-life disaster clips (including bits featuring President Obama), this National Geographic movie chronicles society rapidly falling apart in the wake of a cyber-attack that wipes out the U.S.’ power grids. Oddly, it also has an appropriate companion in PBS’ “War of the Worlds” documentary, tethered to the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast that panicked America.

Perhaps that’s because so many Americans seem panicky these days, which, as a historian notes in the “American Experience”-shingled Welles docu, tends to happen during periods of heightened anxiety — in the case of “War of the Worlds,” the Depression and tumult in Europe; and more recently, the Cold War and Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“Blackout” taps into that last thread, using an on-air script throughout to detail just how vulnerable the U.S. is to cyber-attack, and the kind of chaos that would ensue if we lost all power for more than a week. In a sense, it’s the thinking person’s version of NBC’s “Revolution,” without all the mumbo-jumbo and crazy Samurai violence; or the scripted version of NatGeo’s series “Doomsday Preppers.”

Several groups of characters recur throughout, including college students trapped in their dorm; a family of survivalist-preppers in Colorado, where the dad seems almost giddy to have his paranoia vindicated; a couple where the wife is pregnant; and so on.

Ultimately, though, the movie, written by Emily Ballou and Ewan Morrison, and directed by Jonathan Rudd, is a minor triumph of editing, sound and cinematography, deftly weaving the actual footage together with the fictional material in a way that seems mostly plausible, and extremely visceral. It’s also clearly cost effective, since the news-culled footage spares the producers from replicating those scenes of chaos, allowing them to create a suspenseful product for something a fraction the price of, say, “Cloverfield,” even before the monster shows up.

That said, one has to suspend a certain amount of disbelief, like the fact people conveniently continue to run their phones and cameras even when faced with perilous situations, where having two free hands might be the more logical reaction.

The irony is that while “American Blackout” proves compelling by hewing closely to reality, “War of the Worlds” veers off course by indulging in excessive dramatization — having actors, shot in a facsimile of grainy black-and-white, relate sentiments expressed via letters to Welles and CBS after the famed broadcast.

It’s a terrible choice in an otherwise highly enjoyable hour that captures Welles’ astonishing genius at such an early age, and how an already spooked populace was ripe to be sent into a tizzy — in much the way, frankly, segments of our polarized society, obsessing in their own private little chat rooms, are today.

TV movies have a long history of creatively tapping into deep-seated fears, from “Special Bulletin” to “The Day After.” “American Blackout” obviously doesn’t approach that level of ambition, or the legendary qualities of Welles’ radio play. But it does make a pretty thought-provoking case about the fragile nature of civility, and how little it takes to collectively unsettle us.

In that respect, amid a deluge of Halloween-themed fare, it’s one genuinely worth watching with the lights off — or at least, turned way down low.

TV Review: ‘American Blackout,’ ‘War of the Worlds:’ Tapping Into Fear in Different Eras

<p>(Movie; National Geographic, Sun. Oct. 27, 9 p.m.)                                           (Documentary; PBS, Tue. Oct. 29, 9 p.m.)</p>

  • Production: <p>Produced by Raw TV.                                                                                                                           Produced by WGBH Boston.</p>
  • Crew: <p>Director, Jonathan Rudd; writers, Emily Ballou, Ewan Morrison; drama producer, Katie Davies; camera, Dave Miller; production designer, Keith L. Mosca; editors, Paul Evans, Rudd; music, Rob Manning; casting, Laura Durant. 120 MIN.                            </p><p>Executive producer, Mark Samels; producer-director, Cathleen O'Connell; director, recreations, Josh Seftel; writer, Michelle Ferrari; story, Ferrari, A. Brad Schwartz; camera, Stephen McCarthy; editor, Brian Funck; music, John Kusiak. 60 MIN.</p>
  • Cast: <p>Cast (American Blackout):</p><p>Greg Lutz, Casey Likes, Gage Barret, Katherine Simpson, Lisa Fogel, Alexander Trisoliere, James Pantoja, Alexis Green, Mat Vansen, Simon Faddoul</p><p>Narrator (War of the Worlds): Oliver Platt</p>
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