One way to cope with a world racked by terrorism is to watch movies in which the terrorists lose. Films like "Rambo" and "Delta Force" are blatantly fictitious, however, whereas NBC's thriller "On Wings of Eagles" is based on a real incident.
The two-part, five-hour film, airing Sunday night at 8 and Monday night at 9 on Channel 4, would be pretty fabulous stuff even if it weren't largely true. Very smartly turned out, rivetingly suspenseful and devoid of most of the padding and stalling that plague long-form TV dramas, "Eagles" is a gung-ho adventure, and one that is not, thankfully, a get-even story.
It's not about getting even -- and the dialogue is free of demagogic, anti-Iranian rants -- it's about getting justice, those who got it and those for whom it was gotten. The getting is darn good.
Adapted from a book by Ken Follett, "Eagles" is the story of how H. Ross Perot, conservative Texas multimillionaire, organized a modern-day posse under the direction of a crack retired military man for the purpose of rescuing from Iran two executives from his company who'd been wrongfully and capriciously imprisoned. That Iran was in the midst of a chaotic revolution didn't make their jobs any easier.
The movie is so well made that it doesn't matter if one is familiar with the outcome; you're still suspended in midair by this story of determination and heroism and, yes, righteous (at least in this case) American resolve. You're glued to the set not because you don't know the ending, but in part because you do, and so you can savor it as it approaches.
In Part 2, as the rescuers and the rescued leave Tehran by car and begin the long, bumpy drive to the Turkish border, literal roadblocks are repeatedly thrown in their path, and at each one, the tension tightens. Director Andrew V. McLaglen knows how to get the most out of dire situations. He also knows how to get maximum emotional oompah out of a climactic group homecoming.
The cast is also crucial to the success of the film, particularly Burt Lancaster as Arthur E. (Bull) Simons, the retired Army colonel chosen by Perot to mastermind the expedition. In this movie, Lancaster doesn't do many things he hasn't done before on the screen, but that's all right, because it's such a pleasure to watch him do them again. He stands awfully tall.
And his performance, even if it may seem generic Lancaster, really does etch a dimensional impression of this tough old geezer. In one of his first scenes, about 45 minutes into the picture, we watch him get so wrapped up in brooding over a photo of his late wife that he fails to notice a log tumble out of his fireplace and set the rug ablaze. The scene reveals the softer, ruddier side of the man but also helps explain why he agrees to take on the rescue job, knowing perhaps that this bit of derring-do would be his last.
According to an early plan, Simons and his cohorts were to pluck the two captured American businessmen out of the jail in which they were held and, in a blaze of gunfire, chopper them out of Iran. But in the film, when Simons gets to Tehran, and the plan is all set to go, he learns that his intelligence was all fouled up on the logistics of the jail and, besides, the two Americans have been moved to a fortresslike prison. It's back to the old drawing board.
If the first plan had gone through, there would have been a lot more explosive action in the film, but it would have to have been much shorter. The scheme proves not nearly so simple, and its satisfactions become subtler and deeper with each new unexpected obstacle.
Richard Crenna plays anything-but-poor Perot, making him rather anonymous and apolitical, just a stalwart guy with a lot of money. Paul LeMat and James Sutorius are part of the rescue team. Jim Metzler and Louis Giambalvo play the two businessmen imprisoned by the Iranians, who demand $13 million in bail for their release and even then say they won't let them leave the country.
But the actor, other than Lancaster, who is likely to make the strongest impression on viewers is the dark-eyed looker Esai Morales, who plays Rashid, an Iranian who is crazy about America ("Send me an American college t-shirt, please") and proves an invaluable ally during the rescue operation. Morales' most conspicuous previous role was as a tough Puerto Rican who kept trying to stab Sean Penn in the film "Bad Boys."
* Lancaster doesn't appear to be exerting himself much in the role of Simons, but Simons was, reportedly, a pretty tightly coiled character. Along the route to freedom from the Iranians, a whiny little poodle becomes part of the entourage, and it yaps obliviously. "Somebody shut that damn dog up," Lancaster scowls as the group hides out in a hotel room. But then, later, implored to bid the dog farewell by the woman who owns him, Lancaster allows an obliging, resigned, "Goodbye, Fluffy." It's a sweet, funny moment.
The female roles in this film don't amount to much, since they're mainly wives who wait and hope that their husbands will survive the adventure. Constance Towers is pretty good as Perot's wife, but Dorothy Plummer is the picture of seasoned pluck as Perot's ailing mother. He visits her at a hospital, where she tells him, "You look terrible" and "I'm dying."
As a surly Iranian woman, chief henchperson to the petty bureaucrat who orders the two executives arrested, Victorina Garessi brings back memories of those fanatical hooded specters who appeared on American television during the long hostage crisis. However, few if any were as attractive as Garessi is.
The film is not a mindless flag-waver, and adapter Sam H. Rolfe is more inclined to zing a State Department type than to indulge in Iran-bashing. From career diplomat-bureaucrats, Perot hears such comforting and prescient advisories as "The situation in Tehran is stabilizing" and "The shah is firmly in control." Such real names as Kissinger, Vance, Helms and Ardeshir Zahedi, once Washington's most accommodating host, are dropped, none of them disparagingly.
There is one other portrayal that ought to be noted. Thanks to the diligence of the filmmakers, Mexico City did a remarkable job of impersonating Tehran.
"Portions of this film have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes," a closing credit advises. We expect there to be some liberties taken with such a story, but it's the truth at the heart of it all that gives the film a take-notice integrity, and the kind of impact that made-up stories about pop-comic superheroes can never have.
'Liza in London'
Obviously the success of a one-person show depends on the appeal and durability of that one person. Cable TV has been perfecting this program format, one the commercial networks avoid, and the results have been occasionally rewarding.
Then there is "Liza in London," starring Liza Minnelli, which premieres on Home Box Office at 10 tonight and which is not merely rewarding, but rousing. It's an all-star revue. Liza is all star.
At first, it seems a little ordinary. Minnelli, after a prefatory dressing room scene, materializes with a whoosh on the stage of the London Palladium, where the concert was taped March 20, and where she shared the bill with her illustrious mother Judy Garland in 1964. She sings old songs ("Blue Skies") and relatively new songs ("I Get Excited") and it's all quite nice, if hardly electrifying.
But it builds. Rather masterfully. After such superblasters as "Some People" (from "Gypsy"), Minnelli settles down for a few intimate ballads. The camera gets closer, and the closer to those big brown eyes, the better. She changes outfits from the red spangly top and black tights that make her look almost topplingly bosomy (like a cross between Margaret Dumont and Tina Turner) into a suit and tie, the kind of thing her mother wore for the poignant numbers.
Prior to an exquisite "He's Funny That Way," Minnelli makes a brief reference to personal ordeals, which have included treatment of an alchohol dependency, when she says to the crowd, "I feel wonderful. I'm strong. I'm happy. I've never felt better in my whole life." Well, that's all they had to hear. From that point on it's not just loving Liza,it's rooting for Liza. Is this maudlin exploitation of real-life melodrama -- the kind of melodrama that surrounded her mother's career in its later, slightly frightening, years? Who cares, it works. Minnelli is keeping some rich old vaudeville traditions alive, and a few faintly appalling ones, too.
She soon enough gets to "New York, New York," and wow wow wow, goose pimple time, no matter how one may try to resist. Another Kander-Ebb signature tune, "Cabaret," follows; Fred Ebb wrote the special, and Don Mischer dazzlingly directed it. After a brief cameo by Lorna Luft, Minnelli's sister, Liza closes with a socko "The World Goes 'Round," which is no "Over the Rainbow," but then what but "Over the Rainbow" is?
By this time, one may find oneself hopelessly vulnerable to Liza's ouchingly hopeful vulnerability. Half-tearfully she tells the cheering crowd, "I'll remember this my whole life!" For a while at least, you'll probably remember it, too.