Movies stamped with the HBO Documentary Films logo tend to fall into a very specific category of non-fiction image-making — a baseline level of competency, some slick graphics, and a certain aesthetic conservatism. Pedagogy is the name of the game, presenting facts in an easily digestible format and offering a broad survey of whatever subject is at hand. Marley McDonald and Brian Becker’s Time Bomb Y2K fits snugly into this mold, chronicling the build-up to the turn of the millennium and the fears, grounded or otherwise, that an apocalyptic event might occur at the strike of midnight.
Constructed entirely out of archival footage, the film deals specifically with the “Millennium Bug,” a programming shortcut that used only the “19” part of “1900” as a baseline for coding. The problem, as it is described here, was that when computer’s clocks switched from 1999 to 2000, there would be, or at least could be, a complete communication breakdown as computers assumed a return to 1900 instead of recognizing the change to 2000 (this was programming’s “original sin,” as one commentator ominously put it). As several people describe here, the worry was never so much about the failure of people’s personal computers, but rather the interruption of necessary infrastructure, air travel, and, most ominously, the world’s nuclear arsenals.
Beginning in 1996, McDonald and Becker paint a rosy picture of the then-burgeoning Internet: low-res, rudimentary video chats are cutting-edge tech, Bill Clinton gives press conferences about laying millions of miles of cable to connect the world, and brief clips of sci-fi movies show how ideas about virtual reality and cyberspace were already permeating the mainstream (a young Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic screaming about getting on the Internet is quite funny). TIME BOMB Y2K doesn’t have a main character, but a man named Peter de Jager, a former IBM employee and self-styled “Y2K Paul Revere,” becomes something of a functional throughline here, popping up on contemporaneous news programs to warn of impending disaster.
Clocking in at a breezy 80 minutes and change, Time Bomb Y2K is loosely structured as a countdown, moving from ‘96 to ‘97 to ‘98 and leading up to the stroke of midnight, 1999. Given the overall brevity, the film can only briefly touch on a wide swath of people and their various reactions: religious fundamentalists trumpet the impending Rapture, while survivalists bunker down and stock up on goods while gun sales skyrocket. It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as there is plenty of footage of mutual aid meetings and community groups brainstorming how to help the disadvantaged if the worst should come to pass. The film highlights a key irony of global interconnectedness, an irony we still live with today, no closer to solving: people can communicate and share information like never before, but can also become isolated and checked out from society. It’s a warning that pops up in several scenes over the course of the film, which ends on a hopeful note of new beginnings and fresh starts.
It’s almost quaint to revisit two decades ago, given what we know now about dis- and misinformation, as well as the rise of social media. But ultimately, Time Bomb Y2K can’t quite overcome the sense that it’s merely a nostalgia piece; people too young to remember or not yet born will only get a partial understanding of what 1999 was actually like. A truly zeitgeist-minded thinker like J. Hoberman might’ve come up with something more substantial with this same material, or forward-minded filmmakers like Chloé Galibert-Laîné or Kevin B. Lee for that matter. But what we do have are glimpses of well-known figures like Rudy Giuliani, George W. Bush, and Putin, which suggest some of the trials to come in the 21st century. And while the filmmakers never even hint at 9/11, anyone old enough to remember the Millennium Bug would surely be aware of the defining event that was less than two years away. We didn’t know how well we had it, in other words.
Published as part of DOC NYC 2023 — Dispatch 1.