War Of The Worlds

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We human beings like to fancy ourselves an intelligent race. Mankind has harnessed the power of electricity, built massive communication networks that bridge intercontinental divides, and shot dozens of astronauts into the depths of outer space. But these are often the achievements of individuals or small collectives—giant leaps, to paraphrase Neil Armstrong, achieved by a single person on behalf of a civilization. To put it in the equally repeatable words of another expert in astronomical matters: “A person is smart,” says Tommy Lee Jones’ Agent K in Men In Black. “People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.”

In some small part, Agent K is alluding to a pop-culture milestone that made way for Men In Black by ensuring popular culture’s undying fascination with the stars: The Mercury Theatre On The Air’s notorious live dramatization of War Of The Worlds. On the eve of that broadcast’s 75th anniversary, American Experience aims to steep its current-day audience in the confusion, panic, and outrage (plus a soupçon of amusement) prompted by Orson Welles and company on the night of October 30, 1938. Portraying a nation caught between the economic devastation of the ’30s and the international military conflict of the ’40s, the PBS history series properly sets the scene for the fallout from Welles’ immaculately orchestrated fakery. Drawing from archival footage, talking-head interviews, and reenactments of listener testimony, the documentary presents a grounded, frequently entertaining explanation of just how the Mercury players managed to whip so much of its audience into a frenzy.

The testimonials are the key to the program, a spine that makes the panic real and relatable—even if some of the performers lay the old-timey dialogue on a bit thick. Whereas past treatments of the subject matter—like the 1975 ABC telefilm The Night That Panicked America—put a cartoonishly feverish face on the reception to War Of The Worlds, the American Experience reenactments reduce the story to a human scale. While many relate outsized fear and lingering trauma following their vacuum-tube duping (one man, his eyes toward midterm elections that took place nine days after the broadcast, condescendingly suggests these folks be “sterilized and disenfranchised”), most take the experience with a grain of salt. By American Experience’s account, it’s the post-show news reports and government inquiries that did the real screaming—those presenting testimony appear to reserve as much disdain and dismay for their speakers as they do Orson Welles.

As with any treatment of a property even tangentially related to Welles, American Experience’s take on War Of The Worlds is susceptible to the magnetism of the man who would be Charles Foster Kane. At times near the documentary’s conclusion, it threatens to veer into a full-on biography of the man who incensed listeners as they absentmindedly dialed from Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy to the noisy Martian violence unfolding in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. But this is American Experience, not American Masters, and Welles’ transition from the CBS recording studio to the RKO film lot only steals focus for as long as it needs to. For once, the story is the production, not the man at its center.

An hour of TV absolutely steeped in context, American Experience’s examination of War Of The Worlds is at its best when it engulfs its audience in the world inhabited by the Mercury’s audience. The heightened emotional response the show elicited makes more sense with Nazi invasions and the Hindenburg disaster (which, like the Martian landing that kicks off War Of The Worlds, took place in New Jersey) in the periphery. The assembled experts and Oliver Platt’s narration wisely avoid any sort of “And it could happen again!” portent, but the impression’s there. Yesterday’s faux newsflash is today’s Twitter death hoax. War Of The Worlds was a powerful lesson in the sway of mass media, and American Experience doesn’t use its similarly sized platform to push any one theory about what happened (and why) on that October night three-quarters of a century ago. It wasn’t one monolithic reaction, but rather several hundred voices rising up to express differing levels of fear. If there’s any conclusion to be drawn, it’s about greeting startling news by thinking about that startling news—flexing that intelligence the human race so proudly touts.


Grade: B
Directed by: Cathleen O’Connell
Debuts: Tuesday at 9 p.m. Eastern on PBS (check local listings)
Format: Documentary

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