Of all the nutty ideas: dramatizing the Reykjavik disarmament talks. And of all the crazy things: it works. It's mesmerizing. "Breakthrough at Reykjavik," at 9 tonight on Channel 26, makes an apt and witty prelude to this week's convening of the superpowers in Washington.
Summit cum laude!
The 52-minute film, produced by England's enterprising Granada Television, will be shown by WETA as part of a two-hour special, "The Summit: A Nuclear Age Drama," which continues at 10 with a panel discussion moderated by Marvin Kalb.
Termed a "reconstruction" of the events at Reykjavik in October 1986, "Breakthrough" casts look-alike (or nearly) actors in the roles of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and members of the negotiating teams, including George Shultz, Richard Perle, Donald Regan, Kenneth Adelman, Max Kampelman and John Poindexter. The real Reagan and Gorbachev are seen in newsreel footage entering Hofdi House at the beginning and leaving it at the end.
Ronald Harwood's script is based on "extensive off-the-record talks" with both U.S. and Soviet participants, WETA says, and on "notes taken by Soviet and U.S. delegates," according to the opening credits. While we are invited into private chambers where the Americans deliberate and strategize, however, we don't get similar entree into the Soviet quarters.
Lopsided or not, the portrait of the negotiating process is riveting, the behind-the-scenes atmosphere intoxicating and the sense of history rich.
As for authenticity, only the insiders themselves will be able to judge that fully. But the piece certainly sounds authentic, particularly when Reagan quotes to Gorbachev the old Russian saying "Trust, but verify," precisely as he did to the four network news anchors who interviewed him in the White House just last week.
Shrewdly condensed by Harwood, and crisply directed by Sarah Harding, the drama moves along so fast that one may well wish the program were longer and the account more detailed. The focus shifts from the official Reagan-Gorbachev encounters to furious finagling backstage.
At one point, a man enters a bathroom only to find it occupied by two staff members who've claimed it as a work space. "We are drafting a document for the president," says the man perched on the toilet. Earlier, attempts to photocopy a preliminary agreement are foiled when it is learned there's no copying machine on the premises and Icelandic security won't allow machinery of any kind to be brought in.
The crafty Russians offer a radical solution: carbon paper.
After the first morning session with Gorbachev, Reagan enters the secured American conference module, a metal bubble out of "2001: A Space Odyssey." It looks as if the negotiators don't want to be overheard by HAL the computer. "I could sure do with a rest after all that," the president says, then tells his staff, "I'm afraid they're after SDI."
Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, the "Star Wars" defense system, proves the stumbling block the two heads of state cannot surmount (on-site inspection of dismantled missiles isn't depicted as having been much of an issue). But the program does not lay blame for the breakdown at Reykjavik solely on Reagan. Gorbachev rants unreasonably and unyieldingly on the SDI matter.
"Let's go home," he growls near the end. "Let's go home and tell our people we've achieved nothing." Soon the two men are arguing peevishly over miscellaneous grievances. Gorbachev complains that while many American films are shown in the Soviet Union, few Russian movies are exhibited here. Reagan mentions a request by National Symphony music director Mstislav Rostropovich to have relatives permitted to leave the U.S.S.R. for a visit.
It almost degenerates to an "oh yeah?" kind of thing.
Reagan is played by Robert Beatty, whose makeup has a party-mask cast to it and who is probably too short to do an accurate physical impersonation. Gorbachev is played by Timothy West, complete with the cranial blemish that looks like South America (or, as detractors have insisted, like Afghanistan). Some of those cast in supporting roles clearly resemble the characters they play; others don't.
The president comes off very well. If he appears halting or fumbling now in some of his actual public appearances, "Breakthrough" depicts him as well versed, alert, articulate, earnest. Beatty does not play him as at all codgerly, though Reagan does begin one remark to Gorbachev with "I'm older than you are ..."
Would "Breakthrough" have made a more satisfying play if it had a happy ending? Probably, but it could also be said we are living the happy ending this week. Or, not to be corny about it, the happy beginning. The dramatization seems an especially constructive tonic after all the nasty rhetoric leveled at Reagan by some former supporters in recent days.
It offers brief respite from the screaming meanies and posturing pundits.
"Breakthrough," produced by Brian Lapping, stands as one of the TV year's most provocative novelties. If someone can write an opera about Richard Nixon in China, and someone did, then a docudrama about what transpired at Reykjavik is hardly out of line. Viewers who approach "Breakthrough at Reykjavik" with skepticism may find themselves quickly and firmly engrossed.
'Eye on the Sparrow' Filmmaker John Korty is so determined not to pander that his TV movies exist on a higher plane than almost everybody else's. The downside of that is that sometimes he is so clinically correct and dispassionate that the drama goes inert.
"Eye on the Sparrow," the NBC movie at 9 tonight on Channel 4, has a slack stretch or two, but the film overall achieves a quiet, haunting poignancy. Producer Barbara Turner's screenplay is based on the life of Ethel and James Lee, a blind couple who forced bureaucrats to revise regulations prohibiting blind couples from adopting children.
The film doesn't get to the adoption question until almost midpoint. Ethel's life as a child is first recalled in flashback. A bright and imaginative little girl, she rides an idyllic paddle-wheeler with her impoverished father, then is ordered by the state to attend the Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis when she reaches the age of 11.
Ethel emerges from the flashback on an operating table, an adult whose vision is temporarily restored by an operation. But only temporarily. As the grown-up Ethel, Mare Winningham contributes another of her deft, uncluttered performances, and Ethel's delight at seeing her first Christmas tree, and then her first snowfall, is blissfully communicated.
Rescued from suicidal despair when she meets James Lee (Keith Carradine), a blind teacher, Ethel marries him and the couple launch their assault on conventions restricting the blind -- at least those that forbid them from adopting children. "Eye on the Sparrow" is not another drippingly synthetic holiday inspirational, but in its painstaking and conscientious way, it does inspire.
Fairly late in the film, Conchata Ferrell enters as an understanding social worker named Mary who fights for the right of the Lees to keep a 6-month-old baby named Vicki Ann when a board of supervisors tries to take her away. Mary makes her feverish pitch to the group, stomps off and is later encountered catching her breath outside the building. "I was terrific, wasn't I?" she says. She was.
The practical complications involved in these adoptions (the first child adopted is also blind) are largely ignored by the script, and some problems are solved a bit too easily. A 15-year-old adopted daughter named Donna is cured of ingratitude and truancy with a slap. But for the most part, the film is marked by a sensitive emotional complexity.
Korty, who resisted every possibility for false melodramatizing, is attracted to humanistic themes. He told a similar true story of unusual adoptions in his unforgettable documentary "Who Are the DeBolts? And Where Did They Get 19 Kids?" These are not just tales of people locating themselves; the characters in Korty films are looking for more than that.
In "Eye on the Sparrow," they find it, and a viewer feels gratified to find it with them. At times the film grows too forlorn, and the Lees too despairing. The fact that James toots melancholy blues on the trombone doesn't help. You don't want to see the spark of hope doused altogether. Fortunately, it struggles flickeringly back to life.
Eventually its light fills the screen. "Eye on the Sparrow" has luminance to spare.