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‘Ground Zero’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 30, 1988


Michael Pattinson;
Bruce Myles
Colin Friels;
Jack Thompson;
Donald Pleasence
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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Harvey Denton likes his toys. When we're first introduced to him, he's working as a cameraman on an Extra Super Chili Dog commercial, and between shots he can't help using his camera to prowl for pretty women in the crowd gathered around the set. A gifted cameraman, he lives in a sort of never-never land of gadgets, film equipment and computer games. When he goes to visit his son, he breaks in through the kid's bedroom window and blasts him with a toy ray gun. "Don't humor him," his wife tells the boy, dragging her husband out of the room.

Among other things, Harvey's marriage is breaking up, basically because, as his wife puts it, one kid around the house is enough. To Harvey (Colin Friels) everything is a game, and "Ground Zero," which takes the British government's A-bomb tests in Australia during the '50s as its subject, is about what happens when the games turn dangerous.

At first, Harvey doesn't quite know what he's getting into. Arriving home, he checks his answering machine, where an ominous voice instructs him to watch the evening news. Flicking on the tube, he sees a report on the Australian Royal Commission's investigation on the tests in the Outback, at Maralinga, which reportedly caused the deaths of thousands of nomadic Aborigines and exposed countless other civilians and servicemen to dangerously high levels of radiation. Naturally, this baffles him. What do nuclear tests that took place 30 years ago have to do with him?

The answer emerges slowly, and the film's directors, Michael Pattinson and Bruce Myles, demonstrate a better-than-passable ability to create an atmosphere of tension. There's some wit and visual imagination, too, in the way they've shot these opening sequences (particularly the weenie commercial). But the further into the film you get, the less novel their material seems.

"Ground Zero" isn't anything you haven't seen before; it's a coverup plot with a resourceful individual fighting against overwhelming odds to bring to light what others are laboring to hide. Harvey's father, it seems, also turns out to have been a cameraman, and while doing some work for the army around the time of the tests he stumbled onto evidence of a disaster -- evidence that the British and the Australian Security and Intelligence Organization are eager to suppress.

The story here is based on the actual disclosures of a government investigation -- and a possible coverup -- that took place in Australia in the early '80s. But the filmmakers' allegiance to the truth, and their belief that they've increased the value of their work by attaching it to an important issue, may have overburdened their talents; it causes them to get tangled up in too much detail, which in turn overburdens us.

Just when we hope the film will build on its tensions it gets clotted and obscure. If we'd been able to focus more on Harvey and see how his participation in this dangerous intrigue forces him to grow up, or, alternatively, how his boyish ingenuity gives him an edge, we might have found something to hold our interest. But once the filmmakers get into their story, they seem to have forgotten about the developments they'd set up earlier.

By the time Donald Pleasence shows up in the role of the batty British scientist who knew Harvey's father and helped plan the blasts, the film has lost its momentum. And Pleasence, who's flamboyantly, off-puttingly hammy -- you could get trichinosis just from watching him -- tries single-handedly to get it started again. (And what's he doing in this movie anyway? He's not even Australian.) Betrayed by the script, Friels doesn't have enough personality to center the film. He's a proficient enough actor, but as a star, he's miscast. And "Ground Zero" needs a star.

Ground Zero, at the Outer Circle and the Circle MacArthur, is rated PG-13 and contains some adult situations and language.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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