"Mandela" can't be the story of a triumphant struggle, because the struggle isn't over, and triumph may be years away. Thus a hesitancy and inconclusiveness haunt "Mandela," the original Home Box Office movie premiering on HBO tomorrow night at 8. Considerable confusion clouds it up, too.
Danny Glover plays antiapartheid activist Nelson Mandela and the casually stunning Alfre Woodard plays Winnie, the woman he meets 20 minutes into the film and soon marries. The film, poorly written by Ronald Harwood, tries to be a love story set against a background of South African social upheaval, but the balance never seems comfortable, and the upheaval looks all too orderly.
Director Phillip Saville helps not a whit with his quixotic, erratic approach. When a director can stage a massacre and it isn't shocking and moving, that is a bad director. At two hours 20 minutes, the film is too long, has abrupt gaps in continuity, and fails to be as moving as one would like it to be.
Glover, in addition, seems strangely passive as Mandela, not a firebrand, and so the movie is dominated by Woodard's portrayal of Winnie. Woodard gives the character vitality, filling out the impression one has from newsreels and press accounts.
In the most touching sequence, Woodard and Glover exchange letters (though his apparently never get through) while both are incarcerated -- he on a rock pile, she far away in solitary confinement -- during the '60s. Woodard's strongest scene is a speech she gives at a mass funeral for victims of the slaughter at Soweto in 1976.
The film commits the error, though, of making the Mandelas so virtuous and unblemished that they actually become rather tedious. One may oppose a virulently racist and oppressive regime without being or becoming a glowing Pollyanna in the process. The Mandelas would be more real here if they were allowed one or two simple human flaws.
"Mandela" was produced by Herbert Brodkin and Robert Berger, who have long specialized in thoughtful, meaningful dramatizations of topical issues. Standing outside of South Africa and condemning it (the film was shot in Zimbabwe) is an awfully easy exercise, however; most of the white South Africans in the film are depicted as the kind of snarling dogs that Nazis and Japanese were in Hollywood films made during World War II.
One completely praiseworthy aspect of the film is the authentic African choral music included. It's a pleasure to hear this joyful noise without the intrusive intervention of Paul Simon (the singer, not the senator). The glories of "Mandela," alas, are mostly in its incidentals.
'Once a Hero' Cuteness runs riot in "Once a Hero," a new comedy-adventure series from ABC that premieres tonight, with a special 90-minute episode, at 8 on Channel 7. Writer and executive producer Dusty Kay started with a sweet little situation, then proceeded to compromise it into senselessness.
Two directors are credited, and from the look of the finished film, both slept at the switches. What should have been larkish and spry begins to plod and creak after about the first half hour, and never comes back to life. Yet there are aspects of it worth rooting for.
Captain Justice, the hero of "Once a Hero," prevailed in comic books for 30 years, the fanciful creation of cartoonist Abner Beevis (Milo O'Shea, eyebrows akimbo). But the world has changed, and is no longer hospitable to a chump in crimson tights who honestly believes that "things work out, they always have."
Young readers of the comic tell Abner that instead of apprehending archvillains, Captain Justice ought to blow them away with an Uzi. They find it odd that he's been dating the heroine for three decades yet never "hit the sheets" with her. "Some of my friends think he's gay," observes one cynical tot.
So far, so good, and pretty funny. But when Captain Justice bursts through the third dimension, into the real world, to save his pen-and-ink hide, then bursts back again, then returns, and is followed by Robert Forster doing a bad Bogie impression as a comic-book private eye, things get out of whack.
The show seems to have been inspired either by the famous a-ha video "Take On Me" or by the forthcoming film version of "Brenda Starr." Yet "inspired" is too strong a term for what transpires once the plot starts to bubble. Jeff Lester is winningly, even achingly, ingenuous as Captain Justice, and Caitlin Clark gets her teeth into the character of reporter Emma Greely. But what Captain Justice eventually has to face is anarchy, and he can't quite whip it.
'My Two Dads' More painful to contemplate than actually to watch, "My Two Dads," the new NBC sitcom premiering at 8:30 tomorrow night on Channel 4, surmounts its dubious premise thanks to bright writing (by executive producer Michael Jacobs) and a crackling stand-up performance by Paul Reiser, the rotten corporate bad guy in "Aliens."
Originally, and more offensively, titled "Who's Dad?," the series presents us with two men in their thirties who are told in an opening scene that the late Marci Bradford, whom both once dated, has bequeathed them custody of her illegitimate daughter, on the grounds that one of them -- she knows not which -- is the father.
If ever a setup called for a groan, this is it. But Reiser, as the veritable prototype for a 1980s self-obsessive, sparkles in somewhat the way Richard Dreyfuss did as Duddy Kravitz. Greg Evigan, playing the other father, offers complementary niceness. And Staci Keanan, as young Nicole, has plenty of budding charm.
"The father is biologically indeterminate," announces a judge. "That's you," says Reiser, pointing to Evigan. The requisite tender moments are cued later, when the guys stop fighting and admit that fatherhood appeals to them.
Contrived? Yes. In poor taste? Uh-huh. But "My Two Dads" finesses its way out of most gray areas. It's not worth staying home for, but not enough to send one dashing from the room, either.
'Mama's Boy' NBC, flush with overconfidence, claims it has so many good shows and so little room in its successful schedule that some series, called "designated hitters," will run monthly until vacant lots develop in the lineup. One of those, "Mama's Boy," premieres at 9:30 tonight on Channel 4.
Here is a prayer that space never opens up. There isn't a lot vacant enough for this appalling wheeze.
Bruce Weitz, Belker of "Hill Street Blues," plays a 40-year-old sports columnist whose rude and interfering mother decides to move into his apartment. Mom is played by Nancy Walker, looking embalmed. Among her first observations, upon interrupting the son and a sleep-in visitor: "Oh my God, he lives like a pig -- but at least he likes girls."
In the pilot episode (which, because of NBC second-guessing, may not be the one shown tonight), Mom takes time to reminisce about her late husband's sexual prowess, telling her son, "He was not a great ball of fire in bed . . . I hope you don't take after him in that department." On the topic of her son's sex life she admonishes, "I hope you're going to be careful; we're sharing a bathroom now."
As written by Bill Levinson and directed by Greg Antonacci, "Mama's Boy" is tasteless, excruciating oedipal blech -- one designated hitter that strikes out in the bull pen. 'The Golden Girls' "Old Friends," the third-season opener for NBC's four-star comedy "The Golden Girls," has a more serious side than most episodes do. In the show, at 9 tonight on Channel 4, Sophia (Estelle Getty) becomes pals with a fellow feisty senior citizen (Joe Seneca) who, it develops, has Alzheimer's disease.
Thus he can be alert and friendly at times, inexplicably testy and forgetful at others. The episode does not have a happy ending, which is brave for a comedy these days -- even though Norman Lear regularly roamed such realms in his topical classics of the 1970s.
At first the script, by Kathy Speer and Terry Grossman, seems mechanical. The sarcasm of Dorothy (regal Beatrice Arthur), the ditziness of Rose (Betty White) and the frivolousness of Blanche (Rue McClanahan) verge on self-parody. But when the story takes hold, "The Golden Girls" is sterling once again. And director Terry Hughes is reliably sensitive and alert.
A subplot about a nasty little girl who won't return Rose's teddy bear is forced and far-fetched, but it does build to a walloping good payoff, with White at her finest. It's the Alzheimer's story that commands attention, however, and though it has to be telescoped into a very short time frame, it does prove genuine and affecting.
"Golden Girls" has not lost its glow.