"Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal," on Channel 9 tonight from 9 to 11, could have been a movie about the passions and pitfalls of feminism, the villainy of corporations, the tug of war between family and social responsibility with one woman's heart caught in the middle.
Those are the Big Issues, right? Those are the bread and butter for everything from soap operas to Donahue, right? And this is a made-for-TV movie that should be dredging up all the cliches, given the facts of the Hooker Chemical Co. dumping lethal chemicals on land around the Love Canal, near Niagara Falls, N.Y.
Right? Wrong. Somebody in this production went happily crazy and decided to underplay the Big Issues in favor of a simple narrative that ends up being far more powerful without all the ideological gift-wrapping.
In 1978, a housewife named Lois Gibbs learns that Hooker (referred to only as "the company" in the movie) dumped toxic chemicals years ago on the land where her community and her children's school have been built. The chemicals are said to cause asthma and epilepsy, which one of her children has. A neighboring child dies of liver disease. Gibbs gets carried shouting out of a government hearing. Gibbs argues with her husband about conflicting loyalties to family and cause. Gibbs wants the government to pay for the destruction of her community. Gibbs calls the White House, worries about her children, leads cheering crowds, wins most of what she wants, and loses her marriage.
The trick is to transcend the opportunity for easy drama, which Marsha Mason, as Lois Gibbs, does with wonderful virtuosity. Also, Robert Gunton does a terrific bit of acting as her husband. These people are real by the time Mason and Gunton get through portraying them, with no small thanks to the script by Michael Zagor. Even given the awful task of incorporating all the exposition of the facts into the dialogue, Zagor succeeds in demonstrating a fine, un-cliche'd ear for American working-class speech. Somehow, too, they all manage to get through the movie with a minimum of the phony shouting matches that pass for social concern and self-expression.
Unfortunately, this craftsmanship needed only about an hour to get the job done, and the schedule calls for two. The pace, which is slow but taut in the first hour, gets slow but loose in the second. Also: some of the secondary characters didn't get the message about underplaying, apparently, and they come on in the usual heavy-handed TV style.
You don't have to stay with it to the end to get the point -- that's one advantage of docudrama. But as long as you stay with it, it's good stuff.