In the two padded hours of "The Children of An Lac," American television has somehow managed to trivialize the Vietnam war, childhood, motherhood, the English language and all human emotion while at the same time giving itself a great big smooch.
Why does it have to be this way? Why can't we tell this really gripping story of how hundreds of children were evacuated from a Saigon orphanage in the war's last frantic days without going all soft and squishy and smiley? Why can't we tell the story in, say 40 minutes, by cutting out arrivals at airports and lines like "I'll go get the luggage" and snappy exchanges like "Is someone meeting you?" -- "I didn't know when I was coming, so I didn't call." -- "Well then, we'll just have to give you a lift."
The show, tonight from 8 to 10 on CBS, features American actress Ina Balin playing herself as one of the women whose steadfast determination cut through the red tape and official panic of a falling government to provide a plane for the children even as 42,000 refugees stormed into the city. Shirley Jones plays Betty Tisdale, former secretary for New York Sen. Jacob Javits, who had helped establish the orphanage in 1961, a legacy of the fabled missionary Tom Dooley, and Beulah Quo plays Mme. Ngai, the staunch director of the orphanage.
It is a story of fine people rising above themselves to help in a frightful situation and only partly succeeding. It could have been great television, with those surefire elements, babies and goodbyes. And war, of course. But the facts of the Vietnam tragedy, so much a part of the American consciousness, are virtually ignored. That's quite a trick, with a story set in the fall of Saigon. There is brief talk of "conscience," but about what, we aren't told. The picture seems determined not to remind anyone why all this was happening.
The An Lac saga is reduced to a daytime soap. Everyone talks very very slowly, enunciating like slow learners, pausing between phrases. There are the characters: the preemie; the mute girl; the boy who saw his parents killed and wanders into the orphanage with his only possession, a basketful of baby chicks (presumably kittens would have been too unwieldy); the fat bureaucrat; the nice-guy TV newsman, and so on.
And the things they say . . . the dialogue is a regular encyclopedia of clitches. A brief selection:
"Things are getting rough over there, Betty [that is, in Saigon]."
"It's impossible to help everyone, so you should help the ones you can."
"You have an answer for everything, don't you?"
"Rest, rest, my son."
"Ina, it is Sunday, the government offices are closed."
"I'm sorry I'm so down."
"These are such beautiful children . . . "
And, oh yes, the official who looks over the profferred papers and says, "Everything seems to be in order."
The show is so drawn out that the plot doesn't start until we're 40 minutes along. In the second hour, the conflict intensifies. Then some action: a bombing attack. Everyone screams. Children are herded under Thirty seconds later it becomes necessary for us to hear yet more exposition, so someone sends the children out to play.
Not to belabor it any more, this picture should win some kind of prize for the most shamelessly milked ending of the year. Were the children who weren't allowed to leave indeed brought to the airport to see the little ones off? Anyway, there they were, and for what seems like 20 minutes we endure a montage of tears, trembling chins, closing plane doors and violins. wIf war is hell, what can you say about bad TV?