In the last few minutes of "Skokie," the 2 1/2-hour CBS movie at 8 tonight on Channel 9, characters in the story step out of the narrative and talk directly to the camera, as if this were a documentary. An awkward device, it makes no point that hasn't already been made in the film, except that maybe this should have been a documentary in the first place.
Troubling in ways that may not have been intended, the Ernest Kinoy script for "Skokie" at least does dive head first into the kinds of complex legal and moral questions TV movies, and TV in general, usually avoid, as it chronicles the steps taken by citizens of Skokie, Ill., a predominantly Jewish Chicago suburb, to prevent a march planned by American Nazis there in 1978.
The film, produced by Herbert Brodkin and astutely directed by Herbert Wise ("I, Claudius"), has not only a certain topicality and a heap of heavy social significance, it also has a gimmick: comedian Danny Kaye in his first straight dramatic TV role. As Max Feldman Kaye is outraged at the planned march, and at the advice of some religious and civic leaders merely to ignore it. Rancor soon consumes his whole life.
Feldman, though a fictitious character, is, like thousands in Skokie, a concentration camp survivor. Some of the film's best scenes involve him and his teen-age daughter (Marin Kanter), for whom Nazi Germany had previously just been a subject in a history book, never discussed at home. She triggers terrible memories with the simple and agonizing question, "How did Grandma die?"
The city fathers, and mothers, did everything humanly possible to halt the march, but each attempt -- through ordinance or civil suit or whatever -- was eventually overturned in court. Thus the experience became traumatic not only for the city of Skokie, but for the American Civil Liberties Union, which lost members and funds when it repeatedly defended the Nazi march as an expression of free speech.
In "Word of Honor," the stunningly good Karl Malden movie that aired last year, the First Amendment issues were similarly weighty, but the movie got a poor rating. Perhaps the addition of Nazis to the plot will entice viewers to "Skokie" the way a swastika on a book cover seems a guarantee of great literary success. The Nazis never did march; in the end, they claimed a victory because news accounts of the continuing battle gave them exposure they craved. In the film, the head Nazi boasts as a post-mortem, "I was on television and on the national networks for a whole year."
But that wasn't the end, because here comes a TV movie about the event a few years later. The games of mediapolitik go on, and not in terribly encouraging ways.
Kaye's performance has enough heart and integrity to make one forget, fairly early in the film, that this is the clown prince himself, but since the character is fictitious anyway, one would think that the film would detail some sort of metamorphosis, that the character's intransigence would shatter when some event or utterance revealed to him the irony in his point of view (that suppressing free speech is something Nazis do). But no. He merely becomes more and more unyielding.
At the same time, his wife, in a dreadful characterization by Kim Hunter, is going quiveringly to pieces. Kinoy wants her to represent the spirit of capitulation, whereas Kaye is the brave soul who confronts the menace. But surely the contrast could have been established without making the wife such a yammering, stammering weakling; she begins to seem like the creation more of a misogynist than a dramatist.
Kaye is also given such lines as, "If we stood up and fought 40 years ago, things would be different" and, at the conclusion, "this time we stood up and we fought them right back." Isn't this a way of suggesting that 6 million died partly because they didn't stand up and fight back, and isn't that an awfully dangerous and reckless suggestion?
To Kinoy's credit, though, he makes the legal and constitutional aspects of the case playable and occasionally almost fascinating. John Rubinstein plays the ACLU lawyer who, himself Jewish, feels compelled to defend in court the free speech rights of those who would deny free speech to everyone else. The Nazi poison reawakens anti-Semitism even in Skokie; Kaye receives a hateful, abusive telephone call at home. But later, the ACLU lawyer gets a hateful, abusive phone call himself for the part he is playing in making the march possible.
Brodkin, whose TV producing career goes back to such class items as "Playhouse 90" and "The Defenders," also produced NBC's powerful "Holocaust." Asked if he feels any trepidation about bringing up the subject of Nazis in a national forum again, Brodkin said from his New York office, "What are you supposed to do, try to hide? You can't. The important thing is how you present it. You can't make things in the world better by not talking about them."
"Skokie" does talk about them with intelligence and not sensationalism, but the suspicion lingers that this particular piece of bad news would have been better off in the hands of TV journalists than as another jumping-off point for docu-dramatists. Is there really anything very close-minded or perilous about advocating that we have a year, say 1982, without Nazis? We could talk and read and write and look at something else for a change.