Life, and bad TV movies, go on. "Line of Fire: The Morris Dees Story," NBC's Monday night movie at 9 on Channel 4, is a good idea done badly. "The Last to Go," the ABC film at 9 on Channel 7, is a bad idea done worse.
Certainly the issues raised in "Line of Fire" qualify as urgent. Morris Dees, the hero of the film, is a courageous real-life Southern lawyer who has used the law and the courtroom to battle the conspiracies of hatemongering white supremacist groups. He became and has remained a literal target for their wrath as a result.
The movie concentrates on a lawsuit Dees brought against the Ku Klux Klan in the 1980s after a black youth was killed on the streets of Mobile, Ala., by goons acting on Klan orders. By winning a $7 million judgment against the Klan, Dees succeeded where criminal law enforcement authorities, including the slow-to-act FBI, had failed.
This is a powerful story on a powerful theme, but to "humanize" Dees, the producers insisted on a time-consuming subplot about Dees's home life, mainly his difficult relationship with a teenage daughter resentful that her parents have divorced.
Yeah, that one again.
John Korty, normally one of the most reliable and humane directors making films for television, cuts awkwardly from scenes of hate groups planning a violent overthrow of the U.S. government to unbelievably trivial wrangling between father and daughter.
Who cares whether he makes it to her Friday night piano recital when fascists are arming in the countryside in preparation for a national race war?
Corbin Bernsen is as all-wrong for the part of Dees as he is all-right for the part of lady-killer Arnie Becker on "L.A. Law," even though he reputedly has a physical resemblance to Dees. The man Bernsen keeps bringing to mind is not Dees but Wayne Rogers, who usually plays this kind of role and would have been a much better choice.
Bernsen has a way of going dead behind the eyes that is totally inappropriate for a character consumed with a passion for defending the oppressed. And since the film spends so much time on his daddy role, we see virtually nothing of the legal legwork it took to build a case and make it stick. Even the courtroom scenes are flat and slack.
The film was originally called "A Season for Justice," but NBC hyped the title to the more violent "Line of Fire" at the last minute. Typical.
As for ABC's "The Last to Go," this title does not seem to have anything to do with a line from "The Wizard of Oz" that it brings to mind. The Wicked Witch had threatened Dorothy with, "The last to go will see the first three go before her." Then she tried to set the scarecrow on fire with her broom but Dorothy threw a bucket of water and -- well, that's another story. And a better one.
"Last to Go" is about the breakup of an American family that takes a couple of decades and many long minutes of air time to accomplish. For the first quarter-hour, nothing seems wrong with the happy, affluent Slatterys except that they are hideously and monstrously dull.
Then Mom, played archly by a stricken-looking Tyne Daly, turns 40, and she and her doctor husband, played by a wimpish Terry O'Quinn, embark on a series of crises, essentially one cliche after another. First, she gets the hots for a hunky handyman who peeks under the hood of her car and makes seemingly suggestive remarks like "Oughta get them plugs changed."
Hubby finds himself smitten with a comely nurse at the hospital and is off on an extramarital bender. The kids in the family go through their own misadventures; a daughter swigs beer with a fat-faced hippie, a son shies from commitment because his parents' marriage has failed, and so on. If only Ann Landers made house calls.
The shouting matches, recriminatory colloquys, fretful crying jags and tearful hugs all seem groaningly familiar as the story slushes on, directed in a state of sickly pseudo-sensitivity by John Erman, who favors soft-focus shots through groggy foggy lenses. He's television's Mister Misty.
Composer John Morris, who wrote the music for most of the Mel Brooks films, came up with a poignant, haunting theme for the opening and closing credits of "Last to Go." Unfortunately, what lies between is a stultifying combination of bedlam and boredom.
'Making Sense of the Sixties'
Public TV has become as obsessively promotion-minded as the commercial networks. The six-hour, three-night documentary miniseries "Making Sense of the Sixties" opens tonight with three minutes of introductory pap, starting with an announcer telling us the '60s were "the most dramatic era of change in American history since the Civil War."
The Civil War, get it? It's also the title of the hugely successful and hugely rewarding PBS miniseries shown late last year. In no way does "Making Sense of the Sixties" compare, nor should it be asked to. But on public TV, the ploy's the thing.
Parts 1 and 2, airing at 9 tonight on Channel 26 (with the succeeding four hours airing tomorrow and Wednesday night), take their time introducing and flirting with the subject. Once all the foreplay is out of the way, Part 1, "Seeds of the Sixties," looks at the social and political attitudes of the '50s and how they affected the generation of baby boomers then growing to maturity and prominence.
In the conformist climate of the '50s, says narrator Carol Rissman, four rules of order were fundamental: Obey authority, control your emotions, fit in with the group, and don't even think about having sex. In the '60s, of course, these are the rules young adults would smash.
It's all a bit simplistic, and the program, at least based on the first two hours, seems less a personal view of the '60s than an institutional one. Many of the facts and film clips are extremely familiar, though they might seem like insights or revelations to those too young to have lived through the era, probably the ideal audience for the show.
Part 2, "We Can Change the World," concentrates on the civil rights movement. Survivors of the era offer recollections, among them Eleanor Holmes Norton, then a civil rights activist; New Republic editor Hendrik Hertzberg; Roger Wilkins of the Institute for Policy Studies; and Claude Brown, author of "Manchild in the Promised Land," who recalls thinking, as the civil rights movement flourished, "America's finally going to become America."
But it was a time of crushing disillusionment as well as flowering hopes, and Lawrence Guyot, former chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, remembers a sobering realization that followed the Democratic convention of 1964, when white politicos blocked entry of Freedom Summer veterans: "We found that when you really put the political system to the test, it failed."
Not all the remembrance in the first two hours is valuable. Appropriately, perhaps, some of the '60s survivors still seem consumed by moralistic sanctimony. One or two sing -- ugh. The show is not without intentional humor, however, mainly in Part 1, when we get to see excerpts from militant-minded "educational" films of the '50s designed to pound home conventional morality with a very heavy hammer.
"No! Girls who park in cars are not really popular," preaches one. Others show preposterously idealized versions of sanitized family life, so oppressive in their rigidity that it's no wonder a generation rebelled.
For some, of course, the '60s are not, and never will be, over. Rep. Gerald Solomon (R-N.Y.) made that point in a buffoonish House speech excerpted on CNN's "Capital Gang" Saturday night. Solomon denounced those now protesting the war in Iraq as "unshaven, shaggy-haired, drug-culture, poor excuses for Americans wearing their tiny round wire-rimmed glasses, a protester's symbol of the blame-America-first crowd."
Plus c a change! Making sense of the '60s, or of the '90s for that matter, may be a hopeless task; producer-director David Hoffman deserves credit for taking a good shot, wide of the mark at times, but hitting the occasional bull's-eye just the same.