"Hostage Flight" dangles before the audience a clearly tantalizing specter: the sight of brutalized hostages on an imperiled aircraft overpowering their gun-toting captors and hauling them into kangaroo court. The NBC movie, tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 4, is a pulse-pounding potboiler whose last quarter becomes an "Ox-Bow Incident" at 37,000 feet.
NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff already had the script for the film sitting in his office when last summer's TWA hijacking story was breaking. He had it rewritten and rushed it into production. Former Washingtonian Stephen Zito and Felix Culver, who wrote the script, deploy the "Stagecoach" and "Airport" elements with persuasive zest, and director Steven Stern tightens screws shrewdly.
The terrorists are made carefully international, but the leader, and the most vicious of them, does bear a certain facial resemblance to Muammar Qaddafi. Others are French, Irish and so on; why they have banded together as the "Peoples Liberation Army" remains understandably unexplained. Zito and Culver seem to have mastered the art -- well, craft -- of letting us know just enough about key passengers so that we care about them as people, not just as stick-figure victims.
Trans-Allied Flight 136, a DC-10 en route to Detroit, lands instead at JFK Airport in New York and then heads out over the Atlantic once the terrorists have obtained, and solidified, control. They are not portrayed as confused or misguided fanatics; rather as the sadistic scum we all assume hijackers and terrorists to be. They are even, according to the script, sexually degenerate, but that's just the icing on this very commercial cookie.
Among the passengers are the requisite Beloved Old Jewish Man, played by, who else, Jack Gilford, with his predictable speech comparing the terrorists to Nazis in prewar Poland. Dee Wallace-Stone, Rene Enriquez and Barbara Bosson fill other seats. John Karlen plays a Chicago cop whose gun is quietly stashed with the airsick bags before the passengers are searched by the hijackers.
It's the cop who will caution the passengers, when they get to the point of deciding whether to execute the terrorists on the spot, "We have got to trust the system." American TV audiences will see the crisis resolved in a different way than foreign audiences will. The NBC version has been designed so as not to give the appearance of endorsing vigilante justice; in the foreign version, the passengers get even in less uncertain terms. Still, the movie's denouement doesn't seem a cop-out, and even the highest-blown speeches have recognizable elements of truth in them.
There is one glaring inaccuracy among the details. Prior to the terrorist takeover of the plane, the passengers are depicted as becoming alarmed that the flight is -- get this -- only 20 minutes late in reaching its destination. These are people who must never have set foot on an airplane before. Otherwise, "Hostage Flight" is a tense, topical thriller. 'Kane & Abel'
Fair warning in "Kane & Abel" doesn't come until the seventh of its seven hours, when the Boston- Brahmin tycoon who has been feuding with the Polish-American tycoon declares of the feud and, implicitly, of the mini-series, "It will only end when one of us goes under." Actually, it doesn't end even then.
Another semisweeping, semisleepy saga, spanning decades and hopping continents, "Kane & Abel," which airs tomorrow at 8, and Monday and Tuesday nights at 9 on Channel 9, apportions out the requisite amounts of sex and violence, but most of the violence occurs on the first night, the most crucial in terms of grabbing an audience. That's a rather cynical touch, considering that little if any of this violence has anything to do with the story at hand. The story is not so much at hand as at bay until the two future bitter enemies finally meet near the end of hour three.
While not nearly as vicious as "North and South," with its parade of floggings and beatings, "Kane & Abel" includes stabbings, thrashings and the murder of a child. All this occurs during the scenes of life in Poland in the first decade of the century, where young Abel Rosnovski is growing up. First the Germans, then the Russians plunder Poland. The Germans kill kids, but the Russian soldiers rape the hero's sister while he looks on, and leave her lying in a muddy road.
That's not all. When the lad finally escapes a prison camp and surfaces in Constantinople, the Turks almost cut off his hand for the crime of stealing an orange (lucky for him it wasn't a banana). Fortunately, a kindly Polish diplomat comes forward to rescue him and also to get the pokey plot in motion by announcing to the youth (and to the audience), "Now is the time for you to start a new life in America."
At that point the film stops documenting physical brutalities and sets its sights on the Darwinian world of business. The lad from Poland becomes first a waiter at the Plaza Hotel (circa 1923), then goes the upwardly mobile route, thwarted though he is by arch rival William Lowell Kane, who's been a rich so-and-so from the day of his birth. Which is another thing they share; they don't know it, but they were both born on the same day in 1901.
Of course, one was rich and one was poor. Indeed, Abel is so poor he can only afford one nipple. Much fuss is made of this anatomical quirk in the early chapters, but no one seems to mention it later on.
Writer Robert W. Lenski, working from a Jeffrey Archer novel, tries but can't quite succeed at making stock market maneuverings and board of directors meetings the stuff of high drama, or even the mid-level drama we now expect of these infernal multipart things. What keeps the movie going is Peter Strauss as Abel. Though he stumbles over an unnecessarily thick mock-Polish accent ("bonk manganar" for "bank manager"), Strauss shows more teeth playing this character-flawed scrapper than he does in those movies where he's noble Mr. Niceness. He has moments of power and pathos as the transplanted nobleman scrambling for a buck.
It could be that Strauss took the part of Abel with the assurance that whoever was cast as Kane would not be an actor likely to upstage him. No problem! Sam Neill, as Kane, is a Strauss dream come true. He does nothing to dispel the notion that bankers are dull. On this guy, a gray suit seems too flashy.
Although Neill is no threat, Strauss gets some scenes stolen from him by redoubtable and venerable Fred Gwynne, as a kind of small-scale Conrad Hilton. Gwynne plays the part like a magician; he keeps bringing the equivalent of rabbits out of his hat and doves out of his sleeve. He's wonderful here in the way he was in the Coppola film "Cotton Club." Unfortunately, we know the stock market crash will soon get him the instant he optimistically says to Abel, "Son, we're goin' places!"
Veronica Hamel is little more than a mournful joke as Kane's wife.
Also worth mentioning are cute Kate McNeil as Abel's daughter and Tom Roberts Byrd as Kane's son. Now, remembering that Kane and Abel are dogged, obsessed enemies who have sworn to destroy each other, what do you think the chances are that Abel's daughter and Kane's son will meet and fall in love over the glove counter at Bloomingdale's? If you answered "infinitesimal," you haven't been watching much television in the past 35 years. And what a happy, healthy individual you must be!
Though it takes almost forever to get to it, "Kane & Abel" does save a haunting, mordant twist for an ending that really is an ending. Perhaps only in the medium of television could this assessment constitute an accolade: "Kane & Abel" is almost worthless, but it is not a complete waste of time.