Those who produced "The House on Garibaldi Street," an ABC movie about the capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, resisted the temptation to sensationalize the material-all too well. In fact, they have de-sensationalized it into a state of torpor. The film, like so much network programming, is part of a plot to keep us from getting upset.
And yet the reality at the heart of the story-for which "certain incidents and characters have been changed for dramatic purposes," according to the de rigueur disclaimer-carries its own immutable impact. And the film, at 9 on Channel 7, does have a few performances and bouts of tension that are unusual if not as extraordinary as they could be.
The first hour of Steve Shagan's script, from a book by Isser Harel, details efforts to find and apprehend Eichmann; as the film begins, in 1960, he is living under an assumed name in Argentina. The second hour is mainly concerned with getting the kidnapped Eichmann out of the country without interference from local police officials.
Essentially, "Garibaldi" is a manhunt thriller and a tale of moral espionage and not an appropriate vehicle for meditations on human rights or genocide. There have been better vehicles for that, including Robert Shaw's play "The Man in the Glass Booth," inspired by the Eichmann case, and last year's NBC mini-series, "Holocaust."
But director Peter Collinson insists on a solemn, somber tone rather than a nervous, urgent one, and so "Garibaldi" fails not only as a statement of righteous indignation-which would probably be gratuitous at this point, anyway-but also as a gripping, crucial escapade. The Israeli commandos are depicted as noble and earnest but not very interesting, and the film lacks the outrage and fervor of such electric fictions as last year's theatrical feature "The Boys from Brazil" or ABC's own mini-series, "GB VII."
Those films were able to translate the horrors of Naziism and the gas chambers into alternately startling or sobering terms. There are a few scenes in which "Garibaldi" does that too, particularly when Eichmann, being held by the commandos as they seek a way out of the country, talks about his role in the maintenance of the concentration camps.
As Eichmann, Alfred Burke maintains a chillingly cool composure, even when he is asked by interrogators if he really made the statement that he would die "laughing" about the fact that he oversaw the extermination of 6 million people. Eichmann calmly explains that this remark was taken out of context. "My staff was demoralized; I made the statement to cheer them up," he says.
He adds in his own defense that he "instructed that children be given a chocolate" and that women hear the strains of a Strauss waltz to alleviate their fears as they were marched into gas chambers.
To the filmmakers' credit, they do not make Eichmann a snarling, venomous monster. He even begins to appear pathetic as he is led about the house with his eyes covered, meekly asking his captors, "Where are you taking me? What are you doing, please?" But the discretion becomes somewhat ruinous when applied to every aspect of the narrative; if they went to the trouble of changing "certain characters and incidents," they might also have inserted a bit more in the way of breathtaking suspense. There must have been the potential for plenty.
Harel, the man in charge of the mission-dispatched by Ben-Gurion (Leo McKern) in an early scene-is played with sobriety bordering on somnambulism by Martin Balsam. A man identified only as Michael, who supervises the operation in Argentina, is played by the Israeli actor Topol, looking surprisingly young without the beard and makeup he wore as Tevye in the movie version of "Fiddler on the Roof."
But though Topol projects a rugged physical vitality, his voice is such a basement bass that it lacks expression and sounds like it is being dudded in from another country. Nick Mancuo shows more dynamism as Ari and Janet Suzman makes the most of her few brief appearances as Hedda.
As in so many other TV films, you could fit another entire movie into the spaces between lines of dialogue and the odd, debilitating pauses. With much TV junk, this doesn't really matter, but here is a story that deserved something better. When computers start directing movies, they may come out looking like "The House on Garibaldi Street." CAPTION: Picture 1, Alfred Burke portrays Adolf Eichmann in "The House on Garibaldi Street."; Picture 2, Janet Suzman and Martin Balsam in "The House . . ."