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Night That Panicked America, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A well-hidden gem about a well-known event."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I don't know whether I'd call "The Night That Panicked America" a buried treasure, but it's an interesting reminder that the entertainment industry has produced a lot of content over the years, and some of it, while pretty good and containing some recognizable people, is just seldom going to reach the top of anyone's to-watch list. It's a nifty little movie produced for television in 1975, and benefits from its modest goals.

Most know the story behind it - on 30 October 1938, Orson Welles (Paul Shenar) produced a version of War of the Worlds for CBS radio that many in America took for reality, resulting in them acting accordingly. The film follows both the scene in the studio and a number of people taken in by the show: A father (Michael Constantine) who objects to his son (John Ritter) enlisting in Canada; a separating husband (Vic Morrow) and wife (Eileen Brennan); a preacher's daughter (Meredith Baxter), her father (Will Geer), and the boy who wants to marry her (Cliff De Young); and a swanky party in California who won't listen to the servants (Byron Webster & Hanna Hertelendy) that realize it's just a show.

One thing that the movie does very well that often gets overlooked when talking about the Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast is to give the context of the time, showing the world headed to war and America already on pins and needles. So often, the story of this broadcast treats it as a hoax or the audience as extraordinarily credulous or unsophisticated. The script by Nicholas Meyer and Anthony Wilson transforms the story from one about gullibility to one where what people were hearing a variation on what they've been expecting anyway. Welles didn't just use the medium in a new way; as each individual storyline shows, he tapped into something that was already there.

Each of those stories is well-done enough to be an enjoyable short film on its own, but it's impressive how director Joseph Sargent and the writers mix them up. The studio segments are snappy bits showing performers at the top of their game doing nifty things, with Paul Shenar evoking Welles and reminding audiences just how great this broadcast is, and the California scenes are fairly arch and sly in their satire through much of the film. The other ones, though, get surprisingly dark fairly quickly, and while there's room to laugh at the guys worked up about Martians, it's also very easy to see just what pure, raw fear can do to a person in these situations.

A good ensemble is a big help there, and this movie has the sort of cast that was commonplace for TV-movies in the 1970s and 1980s, built out of television actors whose shows were on their summer hiatus and weren't quite so able to make the leap to feature work as their modern-day equivalents can. Almost everyone is or would soon be a familiar face from the tube - John Ritter, Meredith Baxter, Tom Bosley, and the like - and they're just as dependable as they would be as series regulars or frequent guest stars. Shenar gets the best chance to stand out (he is playing Orson Welles), but the whole group is solid up and down the line, doing good jobs without calling attention to themselves.

Movies like this haven't quite died out, but they're more likely to be indie dramas fighting to get noticed by festival audiences than something with the security to just go about its business like this had. Granted, TV-movies seldom worked out this well, but it's a shame that this one doesn't seem to be on DVD or maybe any of the streaming sites, where it would be a nifty thing to stumble on based on recommendations.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=25661&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/21/13 14:20:22
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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  31-Oct-1975

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