"Angel City" gets the juices flowing, that's for sure, but as happens often in television, it's for purely trivial purposes. The CBS movie at 9 tonight on Channel 9 suggests what would have resulted had "The Grapes of Wrath" been turned into a Saturday afternoon serial.
TV movies like this one deal with social problems, yes, but only in the way sitcoms deal with sexual relationships or domestic conflict -- as an excuse to do something silly. It is never hinted in "Angel" that the tragedy aflicting the migrant workers in the story has anything to do with society or the economic system in general; it's all ascribed to a demonology, to a few evil goons who are blood brothers of theguys who chased Little Eva across the ice to these many moony melodramas ago.
"Every man has some good in him," says the impossibly, irritatingly naive hero of the film. But he soon learns otherwise. The taskmaster of the camp is an inhuman fiend who employs vicijous thugs to enforce his iron will. Obviously CBS saw in this material the potential for another Guyana story plenty of lurid squalor and mayhem that comes with its own defensive shield of seeming social significance to justify the violence on the screen.
As written by James Lee Barrett and directed by Philip Leacock, "Angel" proves a heap o' emotionally turbulent material. Jared Teeter (Ralph Waite) goes broke on his West Virginia farm and so picks up the family and moves to Florida, where the only job he can get is work on a migrant labor camp that becomes a prison for him and his family.
The workers are locked behind barbed wire in a life of indentured servitude. Before the two hours are over, Teeter's 16-year-old daughter is abducted and molested, his dog is killed, his will is crushed and his van is disabled so that he can't leave. The horror of it all! Finally a propitious moment arrives for bloody overthrow of the oppressors.
Among the more preposterous scenes are one in which a co-worker -- Paul Winfield, meant for finer things -- cheers that daughter by leading a sing-along in the fields; of course the taskmaster says this sort of thing has to stop. Teeter is repeatedly warned that he has driven his family into hell, but he doesn't take the cue and leave, and when it finally dawns on him, well into the film, what he's done, he's so stupid that he announces his intention to escape in front of the taskmaster.
Later he makes an abortive getaway in the night. Not enough that he should be chased by a pickup truck and pistol-whipped; no, he also has to encounter an alligator that tries to snap him up in the swamp. They left nothing out of this one, no sirree.
Ralph Waite of "The Waltons" plays Teeter, whose big mistake, injokily or not, is leaving the mountains in the first place ("The Waltons" is set on a mountain). As his wife, the chilly and supercilious Jennifer Werren stands around posing for Dorothea Lange photos. But the most interesting face in the crowd belongs to Jennifer Jason Leigh as the daughter; she makes the very most of a scene in which she returns to the family after humiliation and abuse at the hands of the taskmaster, played in stock-villain fashion by Mitchell Ryan.
"Angel City" is to migrant labor what "Mandingo" was to slavery: exploitation about exploitation. Network news has looked at the migrant labor problem effectively and movingly during the past few decades. Using the subject as the peg for a wowser like this is a form of betrayal, but as simple, primitive, good-guy/ bad guy storytelling, the film is not bad at all. Not bad, just reprehensible.