"Jacobo Timerman: Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number," NBC's made-for-television movie (Sunday, 9 p.m.) based on the book by the same name, is a tedious, depressing drama salvaged only slightly by Roy Scheider's performance in the title role.
Unfortunately, his moments of brilliance are all too brief.
What could have been a moving film about human rights (on the order of Costa-Gavras' "Missing") is reduced to a version of Lou Grant Goes to Jail. There's even a Colonel Rossi!
Still, fans of Scheider (who looks nothing at all like Jacobo Timerman) will find the steely star of "Jaws" and "Blue Thunder" doing his utmost to bring cinematic substance to the real-life drama of the internationally known Argentine journalist's arrest, torture and eventual freedom.
The movie opens with hazy references to citizens being kidnaped willy-nilly by the Argentine military. Thugs in black-leather jackets snatch innocent people from sidewalks and stores while Scheider/Timerman, the smug owner of a newspaper, La Opinion, fires off editorials deploring the violence ("I'm going to give this country a conscience"), then gabs it up after work with the military at cocktail parties. The producers probably thought too much plot would get in the way of the thug-nappings because there's hardly a mention of the Argentine coup or any plausible explanation of the country's political climate.
Liv Ullmann may have irrevocably set back her screen career as Timerman's wife, Risha, who alternates between a shrill, plump housewife and a vapid, bug-eyed zombie. In more than a few scenes, she sounds like an anxious Argentine Mrs. Olsen.
Still, she fares better than President Carter's former assistant secretary of state for human rights, Patt Derian, who is portrayed as a silly southern belle with a ridiculous Scarlett O'Hara accent.
All this may be worth sitting through for a chance to see Scheider shine. When Timerman is eventually taken away by the thugs and lands in a dark cell, he peers through the door and discovers another prisoner peering back at him. It is as fine and moving a moment as any on television, and stays to haunt throughout the rest of the hour, sprinkled with scenes of Timerman's torture. The main crime he has committed, it seems, is being a Jewish intellectual in an anti-Semitic society.
But the film doesn't dwell much on Timerman's suffering. Instead, we are forced to sit through endless scenes of his suffering wife and their marital relationship, which is under a bit of strain. Finally, Timerman is released from prison and placed under house arrest in his own apartment. His beer-swilling guards grunt in the background ("More beer, more beer") while the Timermans try to work things out in the bedroom.
"Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number" purports to be one of those Important Films. One with a Message.
Unfortunately, it got garbled in the translation.