Rather compelling and quite corrupt, "The People vs. Dan White" tries to piece together remnants of sanity out of a tragic double murder and an equally tragic miscarriage of justice. Unfortunately, it fouls up the presentation with phony reenactments and hokey docudramatics, repeatedly invalidating itself in the process.
The 90-minute tape, at 9 tonight on Channels 26 and 32, mixes scenes from a play, "The Dan White Incident," with remarks by actual observers, including San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, as it retraces the steps taken by the former city supervisor who shot and killed Feinstein's predecessor in office, George Moscone, and supervisor Harvey Milk, a gay activist.
The juxtapositions can be jarring. An interview with Inspector Frank Falzon, to whom White confessed both murders, is immediately followed by a scene in which an actor playing White confesses to an actor playing Falzon. These dramatizations, we are assured, are based on police and court records, and so on, but it is also admitted that there has been "some compression" and there are "composite characters."
When network productions take liberties like this, it's chalked up to commercial demands for glitz, but public television has no excuse. The case was unseemly to begin with; this treatment adds to the unseemliness.
The outrage of the crimes themselves was compounded when Dan White was found guilty only of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to a mere seven years. He served five. White was released, and sank into the fabric of society, last January. Even for California, all this seemed incredible.
Gay activists of San Francisco, of whom Milk had been a leader, saw the case as a homophobic homicide that virtually escaped punishment. What the case seemed to represent in wider terms was another step in appalling judicial breakdown. What it may say is that under the right circumstances, anyone can get away with killing anybody, especially with the help of babbling hired shrinks, who concocted for White the infamous Twinkie defense. He ate a lot of junk food that day, it seems, and was suffering "diminished capacity," and who wouldn't kill a couple of people under those circumstances?
The program raises issues that surfaced during the trial, including the allegation that the district attorney waged a halfhearted prosecution, but it keeps undercutting its observations with the theatrical reenactments. There are many other tools available to documentary filmmakers; docudrama is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Maybe the first. To reenact TV news footage is particularly odious. That increasingly raggedy line that separates the real from the unreal on television is trampled yet again, and by a program that could have contributed much more to the understanding of a troubling case and its dismaying implications. 'Hear Me Cry'
There will be several dramatic treatments of the problem of teen-age suicide, reportedly on the increase, during the TV season ahead. The first may be the most daring since it is aimed directly at a youthful audience: today's "CBS Schoolbreak Special" called "Hear Me Cry," at 4 on Channel 9.
The film, written and directed by Joanna Lee, endeavors to explain the plight of a young man who chooses his 16th birthday to kill himself, entering into a suicide pact with a classmate that only one of them will carry out. As the boy, Lee Montgomery gives new shadings to the usual depiction of affluent high-school jocks. This kid is affluent, and popular, and miserable.
Lee, unfortunately, makes the young man's parents the villains. They are insufferable air heads who not only fail to see danger signals, but help precipitate them. The case is complicated by an "Ordinary People" situation: The boy blames himself for the death of his brother years earlier. The jock's nerdy friend is played by Robert MacNaughton of "E.T." He's feeling worthless after the divorce of his parents and suffering rejection by his father.
The film becomes preoccupied with grievances against the parents and with teasing the audience as to the outcome of the suicide pact (which boy will come to his senses at the last minute?). And so it doesn't really face the tougher question of severe depression, what might be causing it to increase among adolescents, and how it can be identified and dealt with by family and friends.
Instead all that is capsulized in the closing statement of a teacher, who implores a reporter covering the memorial service not to "romanticize" the incident and bemoans the fact that today's teen-agers are besieged from all sides with imperatives of "performance, competition, pressure -- a showbiz world under a nuclear cloud."
The first duty of anyone writing television fiction about suicide is to make sure there is no way the suicide depicted could be viewed as somehow attractive by those watching. It would have been judicious for Lee to include more positive counsel from authority figures, or peers, on the folly of suicide and the abundance of alternatives. There aren't enough sympathetic characters in this drama; nor is it stated emphatically enough that the line of thinking that leads these boys to the edge of a cliff in a car is a crock. 'Nisei Soldier'
The documentary "Nisei Soldier: Standard Bearer for an Exiled People" has already aired in this market, but insufficient attention was paid to it; tonight at 10:30, Channel 32 gives local viewers another opportunity to see this small, unpretentious and immensely moving account of Americans of Japanese ancestry who fought for this country during World War II. Many distinguished themselves in battle, even though some of them, and their friends and relatives, had been imprisoned in American detention camps.
This is a film about honor and loyalty that makes the words real again.
Some 120,000 Japanese-Americans were interred in "Relocation Centers" following Pearl Harbor; their story has been told in documentary and fictionalized accounts. But "Nisei Soldier" tells additionally of those born and raised in the United States who volunteered to serve in combat, even though fully half of them, according to Loni Ding's film, had spent some time in the camps themselves.
The era is evoked through interviews with some of those who served and survived, still photographs, newsreels and radio programs. A chaplain whose face we never see recalls finding the body of a soldier in the all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat team who, the chaplain learned, volunteered not only for military duty but for every combat mission he could, even though his father's home back in the States had been burned by a mob in the grip of "patriotic" hysteria. The chaplain says, "You can't give a medal high enough for a man like that."
Although uncertain in its use of music and in some of the transitions, Ding's film is a model of artful restraint -- it relies on visual images as much as words, and its simplicity is striking. "Nisei Soldier" is not a diatribe about past grievances but a celebration of victories that cry out not to be forgotten. In a 1946 newsreel, President Harry S Truman tells the Japanese who fought for America, "You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice, and you won."