A project like "Gulag," the HBO movie premiering Sunday night at 8 on the pay-cable network, gives the impression of having sat around for a spell before going into production. Like maybe 30 years. Somebody put it on the shelf after Joe McCarthy was discredited. Now in times that seem more receptive to Commie-hating fantasies, it's dusted off and trotted out.
Desperate the rabble that would find this contrivance rousing. On the eve of pre-Olympic games in Moscow, an American broadcaster (David Keith) is framed by the KGB on an espionage charge and sent off to a frosty gulag as an example to the world. Except that it's all kept secret, so how can it be an example? And Dan Gordon's script tries to finesse its panting implausibilities by never once showing how the outside world reacts to the sportscaster's disappearance.
Off he goes into the wild white yonder, after being kept for a time in a mucky cell and having a sinister interrogator drop hot tea on his jammies. "I'm an American, and Americans don't give up," he says, and, really plumbing his rhetorical resources, "I don't think you realize the power an American television network has!" Hasn't he heard that network shares are down and viewing levels are off? Oh well. It sounds good anyway.
But the Russkies are unimpressed and soon the fellow is on a train north, and we mean North, to the gulag of the title, where he meets Malcolm McDowell as a cynical British prisoner. Eventually they escape. Before that dismal inevitability, director Roger Young dawdles over irrelevancies like a glove-sewing contest and a prisoners' drag show along the lines of Stalagski 17. Any scene that is not a little too long is much too long.
One must give the producers some credit for finding a way to include in this male tale a shot of frontal female nudity. A camera slowly pans up a comely ms. as she ponders in the shower. But here come two Commies to whisk her away and -- oh, it was only a dream. Instead of establishing the hero's character in the first reel, Young sends him running, first around a restaurant, then all over the city, just to keep up spurious movement.
And to have things both ways, writer Gordon has the fellow met upon escaping by a White House emissary who clearly wants to exploit the incident for partisan political advantage. You might think months in a brutal Russian prison camp would make the man amenable to that, but no, he bad-mouths the American politician too. Can this be the same lad who an hour or so earlier inscribed "USA" on a bathroom wall in coal prior to defiant urination?
"Gulag" is a frozen waste.