In TV news we have the Fairness Doctrine. In TV movies, we have the Squareness Doctrine, of which NBC's four-hour "Power" proves a wiltingly prime example. The colorless saga of a labor leader's rise and fall is flat and shallow, and yet also plot-heavy and star-studded enough to be diverting at that dilatory, Melba toast level peculiar to television.
A great deal happens in the first two hours, at 9 tonight on Channel 4 (with the conclusion tomorrow night at 9), but when it's over, one may feel more like having awakened from a trance than having even overheard a good story. Ernest Tidyman's script is a slack wax outline and Barry Shear's direction almost defiantly routine, but every now and then the thing livens up to a point of high torpor.
The plot, which promptly flashes us back to Chicago of 1936, virtually duplicates that of the 1978 theatrical feature "F.I.S.T.", which was for Sylvester Stallone a great big F.L.O.P. Although a terrible film, there was a sense of passion, albeit cluckish, behind it. By comparison, "Power" is a rondo for robots.
Joe Don Baker plays Tommy Vanda, into whom as much of Jimmy Hoffa can be read as one wants. The film opens with him agreeing to a deal that lets him out of prison after serving five years for jury tampering. Then it's back to Chicago to see how this well-intentioned young man went wrong.
Unfortunately, nothing in the action or dialogue ever gives one a clue to the man's motivations or impulses. Things just happen: A vicious boss at a meat-packing plant compels him to organize co-workers into a union, his stature in the nascent labor movement grows, and he soon finds himself selling half his soul to a gangster in return for enough muscle to fight the goons hired by strike-breakers.
In Hollywood's social dramas of the '30s, we knew what made characters tick.Authors gave them speeches in which they verbalized their motives -- a simple and efficient device Tidyman never bothers to employ. TV movies like "Power" are made with such fear of giving offense that they end up being about nobodies without dimension.
At the same time, some of Tidyman's scenes are so garishly corny that they look lifted out of "Movie Movie," which spoofed the '30s films. "Ye haven't bin makin' trubble have ya, Tommy?" asks Vanda's sweet little gray-haired mother; later he tells a pal his girlfriend is pregnant in a scene so soapy it floats.
Baker, of the late "Eischied" series, appropriately enough lacks modulation in his performance, which consists mainly of flights and confrontations. But an unusually felicitous roster of old-timers in the cast perks the story up between brawls.
As Vanda's mother, Jo Van Fleet looks no older than she did when playing the madame mama of James Dean in "East of Eden" a quarter-century ago. Times have changed in TV and society to a point where Howard de Silva, blacklisted during the Cold War, can now play a Trotskyite organizer to whom Vanda says, "They call you a red and a radical; are you?"
Victor Jory, as a bakery owner who piously quotes Isaiah to his yes-men, has grown old very photogenically, so that he now looks like either Statler or Waldorf, which ever is the geezer on the right in the balcony on "The Muppet Show." And for some strange reason it is great to see Ralph Bellamy again, even if he is handed such primeval lines as the admonition to Vanda that "you're getting pretty cocky, kid!"
Among the shinier young performers are Brian Kewin (of "Sheriff Lobo") as Vanda's theiving younger brother, and Suzanne Lederer as Catherine. Lederer's scenes with Karen Black, who plays the woman Vanda marries, are the best and least cartoonish in the picture.
When these people aren't offering some compensation for the stick-figure narrative, one finds oneself noticing how attractive the period lamps and cars are. Gee, I wonder where you could buy lamps like those. What swell lamps. Say, those lamps are gorgeous! As for "Power," though, it achieves the TV movie ideal: tackle an explosive topic, wring as many hours of cheap drama out of it as possible, and be very careful to say absolutely nothing.