A movie that naively advocates knowing thine enemies as a first step toward loving them has been denounced in advance by special interest groups, a member of Congress and even a producer of the film. Essentially, the complaint is that the movie lacks hate.
"Children in the Crossfire," a two-hour NBC film to be seen at 9 tonight on Channel 4, dramatizes the founding and first year's work of the Children's Committee 10, a voluntary organization formed in 1982 by a Dublin-born U.S. citizen who thought one way to ease tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland would be to pair children from the two denominations for summer vacations in America with more-or-less typical American families.
Thrown together in a remote environment, they might see that their human similarities outweigh their religious and political differences and be more resistant to the prejudices handed down by other generations.
The movie, directed and coproduced by television veteran George Schaefer (who in 1974 made "War of the Children" with a similar setting), certainly can be accused of having a simplistic attitude toward the conflict in Northern Ireland, but its critics are going further than that. Blair McGowan, president of the Detroit chapter of the Irish American Unity Conference, calls the movie "a piece of British propaganda." A spokesman for Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.), chairman of the ad hoc Congressional committee for Irish affairs, said from Capitol Hill last week that the film "portrays the conflict in a one-dimensional aspect" that puts "the British government in a more favorable light than some people up here might want them to be."
Frank Prendergast, one of the film's four producers, has issued a statement calling the film "unacceptable in its present form" because it omits a prefatory advisory specifying that it is "based on real events that occurred in 1982" and does not represent "the political views of the author, director, producers and network as regards who the good guys are and the bad guys are in Northern Ireland."
There is no commanding reason to heed any of these protests. Indeed, Prendergast's is incoherent. The film calls for compassion and peace, its critics complain that it sprinkles an insufficient amount of salt in old wounds. They do seem belligerently to have missed the point. Almost all of the violence depicted in the movie, in early scenes shot in a sunny Dublin doubling for Belfast, is perpetrated by the IRA, true, but generally Lionel Chetwynd's script seems balanced in that Protestants and Catholics are portrayed as equally pigheaded and spiteful.
The children are a source of hope, and the four Irish youngsters on whom the film concentrates are played by four varyingly attractive young amateurs, children recruited from Northern Ireland itself. Of them, James Norris makes a strong, haunting impression as 12-year-old Timmy Keegan, whose most moving moments are not during his visit to the States but later, when he has to resist peer pressure back home. And Geraldine Hughes has a heartbreakingly soulful, doleful gaze as Mary Holden, whose father is murdered by the IRA while the two of them are walking down a Belfast street, and whose trip to America is conceived of as a way to ease her sorrow. Who could look into her huge, imploring eyes and not be touched?
In America, the embattled children are boarded in pairs with two couples, one played by Karen Valentine and Charles Haid, the other by Julia Duffy and deadly dull David Huffman. Haid doesn't look like he could be married to Karen Valentine (whereas I do), but his performance is given credibility by the fact that he participated in the Children's Committee program himself, and he's also one of the film's producers, earning another gold star for a good-deed list that includes a producer's credit on the unforgettable John Korty documentary "Who Are the DeBolts? And Where Did They Get 19 Kids?" (Channel 26 is showing that film tonight as part of its otherwise insufferable fund-raising terrorism).
Haid gets to speak the film's simple and presumably noncontroversial message: "It takes people to change people." The object of the exchange program, it's made fairly clear, is not to end a conflict that seems to have predated the creation of the world, but to log whatever "small victories" can be won in the name of humane reconciliation. In truth, the film is rather weak dramatically -- the dialogue given the children is static and stilted -- and Schaefer, accomplished as he is, doesn't seem able to whack the big emotional gongs he's after, but as a tribute to a gesture, the film shares the optimism and decency of its subject. And, indeed, the way it has been criticized, and the sources of that criticism, do it credit, and make it more compelling than it otherwise would be.