Two years before the big-budget theatrical feature The China Syndrome dramatized the dangers of nuclear power plants, the excellent made-for-TV thriller Red Alert offered an even more sensationalized take on the subject. Based on a novel by Harold King and written for the screen by Sandor Stern, the picture takes place at a facility in Minnesota. An unexplained leak in the reactor’s coolant tank triggers alerts at “Proteus Central” in Colorado, the command center where bigwig Henry Stone (Ralph Waite) uses a massive computer system to monitor the nation’s nuclear plants. Distrusting reports from his subordinates at the Minnesota facility, Stone sends two security officers, Frank Brolen (William Devane) and Carl Wyche (Michael Brandon), to investigate. They learn that a crazed employee has placed small explosives throughout the Minnesota facility with the goal of triggering a fatal chain reaction. The suspense of the picture stems from efforts to locate and defuse all of the bombs, and also to identify the saboteur’s motive in case he’s part of a larger conspiracy. Complicating matters are the effects of the first explosion at the facility: The saboteur is among 14 workers trapped, and presumed dead, inside the plant’s highly contaminated containment facility, so he’s unavailable for interrogation. Adding another layer to the storyline is Carl’s concern for his wife (Adrienne Barbeau) and their children, who live near the facility that’s on the verge of a catastrophic meltdown.
Although the plotting of Red Alert is a bit contrived, relying on the sort of mad-bomber device one normally expects to encounter in an Airport movie, the dramatic and technical execution of the piece is terrific. Not only did the producers obtain impressive locations and utilize a sufficient degree of technical jargon to make the piece seem credible, but director William Hale’s imaginative camerawork accentuates claustrophobia and juices tension. He’s forever using objects in the foreground to frame faces, underscoring how the film’s characters are caught in a horrible situation. Hale also shoots action well, his camera movements designed with mathematical precision. One can feel the influence of Sidney Lumet, since the storytelling in Red Alert recalls the way Lumet put his not-entirely-dissimilar Fail-Safe (1964) across. The acting is fairly strong, too. Devane is equal parts macho and world-weary as a man tainted by tragedy, Brandon counters him with earnest sensitivity, and Waite plays heavily against type, suppressing his Waltons warmth to incarnate a dangerously cold-blooded autocrat. So even though Red Alert is mostly a well-made potboiler, the actors and filmmakers conjure enough believability to give the piece some teeth as a cautionary tale.
Red Alert: GROOVY