Did people really panic when they heard Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast on Oct. 30, 1938? Did millions of gullible listeners somehow assume that the story — about Martians invading Earth — was really happening?
Probably not. It’s very likely more of a myth than anything else.
Still, co-writers Michael Dowling and Jody Lambert have created an excellent movie about that day and its aftermath: “Brave New Jersey,” which was one of the highlights of last week’s Montclair Film Festival.
Lambert also directed the film, which takes place in the fictional town of Lullaby, N.J. (presumably not far from the real town of Grover’s Mill, in Mercer County, the site of the fictional Martian invasion). Lullaby is, as its name implies, a sleepy rural town, with a population of 506. Things get pretty intense, though, once the broadcast is heard, and people believe the Martians are right around the corner. A militia is formed, relationships are strained, secrets are revealed.
Until, everyone realizes, of course, that it’s just a story. For some people, things go back to normal. But others are forever changed.
Even with a small budget, Lambert has attracted a first-rate group of actors. Two-time Emmy winner Tony Hale (“Veep,” “Arrested Development”) plays the movie’s central figure: The town’s hard-working, sensitive sad sack of a mayor, Clark. Anna Camp (“Pitch Perfect,” “The Help”) is Peg, a schoolteacher who has just gotten engaged but doesn’t seem too happy about it. Heather Burns (“Miss Congeniality,” “Manchester by the Sea”) is Lorraine, the pure-hearted wife of crass rich guy Sam (Paul Davison).
Dan Bakkedahl plays Rev. Rogers, a preacher who seems to have lost his faith until the “invasion” revitalizes him. Raymond J. Barry is Capt. Ambrose P. Collins, a retired soldier who is delighted when the town’s residents seem eager to follow his (extremely questionable) leadership.
Think of “Brave New Jersey” as a kinder, gentler “Lord of the Flies,” with an evocative feel for rural life. Some people’s worst instincts take over, but others retain their core decency. For a moment things get uncomfortably real, but the ending is upbeat.
It’s amazing that, as far as I know, for almost 80 years after the “War of the Worlds” broadcast, no one thought to make a movie like this. It seems like such an obvious idea, now that it’s done. Better late than never.
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