Slanted, inflammatory and horribly fascinating, "The Atlanta Child Murders" has rapidly become the year's most controversial television program. This may, however, be a controversy the viewing nation doesn't need, and one unlikely to do anybody any good.
At the very least, the two-part, five-hour CBS docudrama, which airs tonight and Tuesday night at 8 on Channel 9, is a classic mismatch of medium and message. Even setting aside contentions that it contains numerous factual inaccuracies, a TV mini-series does not seem quite the vehicle for a polemic about how the Atlanta police department allegedly botched a murder case and how the man found guilty by a jury was allegedly a helpless victim of courtroom chicanery and political pressure.
NBC's movie on the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case, "Fatal Vision," also had a strong point of view and in effect retried the case on TV, but that tale did not have the wide-ranging social, political and racial repercussions of the Atlanta story. Fire is being played with here, and perhaps irresponsibly.
The film has already been attacked in Atlanta for its depiction of the city's police department as, at best, incompetent and for strongly suggesting that Wayne Williams was railroaded. Williams, found guilty in 1982 for the murders of two men in their twenties, was also implicated by police, with insufficient evidence to indict, in the deaths of more than two dozen Atlanta children whose bodies were discovered over a two-year period.
There is something in the production to infuriate everyone, certainly everyone in Atlanta. City leaders are depicted as having been more concerned about the bad effect on convention trade than about the loss of children's lives as the horrible murders continued. Ironically, the film chides the mayor and his aides for using the appointment of task forces as a panacea for all civic ills, but last week, word came from Atlanta that task forces had once more been formed, this time to help city groups deal with the telecast of the film. And this may all end up in court again, as we learn whether recent preposterous interpretations of the law make it possible for even a city to sue for libel.
In the nightmare Atlanta depicted in the first part of the film, everyone is either a racist or else accuses others of being racist. "Before the ordeal had ended, the city would go crazy," the narrator says, but the city seems crazy from the beginning, and the film aspires to drive it crazy again. "Hate is the only reality," a militant growls; that seems to be the philosophy of Hollywood liberal Abby Mann, who wrote the spiteful screenplay.
Part 2, which depicts the long Williams trial, is by far the more credible as drama. For one thing, Jason Robards materializes at the beginning of it as Williams' lawyer. Robards' portrayal -- gruff, warm, rangy, crafty -- is a culmination of all previous movie lawyers, and an advancement in the art of playing them. Robards even survives a number of goofball camera angles attempted by the director, the perpetually uninspired John Erman, as a way of animating courtroom sequences. You don't need to animate anything when you have Jason Robards on the screen.
Mann is using an entertainment program to make the kind of points that are properly the concern of news programs. If a network news department were to produce a substantiated documentary or report alleging that Wayne Williams was innocent, that would be worth attention, but should a viewer feel inclined to trust the work of showfolk on such a subject? A miscarriage of justice, if one existed, would be a more appropriate subject for "60 Minutes," which has exposed such cases over the years. "60 Minutes" has never done a piece on the Wayne Williams case.
There is a colossal hypocrisy at work as well. Mann (also the coproducer) and director Erman depict the reporters covering the story as pandering, slavering ghouls. At one point they burst into a woman's house just as she is learning from her TV set that her son is among the murdered children. They stick cameras in her face and film her sobs and screams.
Later the press is seen besieging Williams from the time he was first questioned until he was actually indicted for a crime. He calls a press conference in his home and the narrator says, "He was feeding himself to the wolves." The wolves, yet! He should have had a lawyer by then "but none of these stalwart citizens were going to tell him," the narrator says with heady sarcasm. Mann apparently thinks it the duty of journalists to tell murder suspects to hire lawyers and to warn them against speaking to reporters.
At the end of the film, the mother of one of the murder victims says dolefully of the reporters, "They don't care about us. All they care about is what people will pay a quarter for." This is an interesting charge to be made by a Hollywood writer exploiting a city's and a nation's tragedy for network television. "Child Murders" will take five hours of broadcast time, but nearly 90 minutes of that will be commercials. The film has been scheduled during the crucial February sweeps, when the high ratings it may get can be of the most financial use to the network and its affiliated stations. It begins on a Sunday and continues on a Tuesday partly because those two days fall into two different Nielsen weeks and thus can help CBS fortunes in two different ratings periods.
Expert marketing strategy has been lavished on the film so as to reap the maximum possible benefit to the CBS Television Network. Casting stones is an awfully risky business under such circumstances.
Obviously this is not the first time real-life trauma has been turned into prime-time "entertainment." And the seriously themed thought provoker is certainly preferable to fabricated titillation from the TV movie mills. But Mann's rabble-rousing techniques are cheap and specious; he lunges for jugulars willy-nilly.
Martin Sheen, once more called upon to play The Conscience of All Humanity, is heard shaming the reporters, "I don't know whether you people are unimaginative, uninformed or just plain stupid." Of course -- it's Abby Mann of Hollywood, Calif., who'll instruct us all in ethical behavior. And CBS Entertainment, in cahoots with Gerald Rafshoon Communications, producers of this film, are just the ones to lecture about exploiting tragedies for profit.
While the second part of the film is solidly engrossing as courtroom dramaturgy, it too is weighted heavily to support the charge of railroading. For example, Rip Torn, who always plays snarly varmints, was cast as the district attorney: Tip-Off Number One. Still, real legal issues were raised by the case -- the use of fibers and dog hairs as incriminating evidence, the introduction of other murders into a trial for two specific killings -- and Mann does cover these.
Perhaps the most originally poignant performance is that of Calvin Levels as the accused Williams. Obviously a loner, an outsider, a misplaced person, Williams becomes achingly real as Levels plays him. Morgan Freeman plays honest cop, the fictional Ben Shelter, also the narrator of the film. Ruby Dee is Faye Williams, Wayne's mother, and Gloria Foster is effectively martyrly as the mother of a victim who helps organize protests to the police department's bungling. James Earl Jones is imposing as always but wasted in the role of a police captain obsessed with protecting his turf and rebuffing real or imagined racist conspiracies against a predominantly black administration. "You're playing right into the racists' hands," he warns a critic of his department, later labeling complaints about mishandling of the murder cases part of a plot to "make us look like idiots."
At least the courtroom portions are taken from actual trial transcripts. They are purposefully rearranged and edited, of course, but there is a commanding current of verisimilitude. The first part of the docudrama relies more on the perfervid imagination of writer Mann. He touches on many sensibilities and fallibilities that seem pertinent and worth considering, but there is so much unsophisticated finger-pointing and eyebrow-raising that the film's virtues tend to be obliterated like a mural going up in flames.
Of course, there will be no public outcry about Mann-handling of the press. The prevailing national mood is that you can't kick the media too hard or too often. It's not that the press can't take it, nor maybe even that much of it is undeserved, but the press has become such an easy target now, such a cliche'. It's lazy thinking, nonthinking, and in this case it seems phony, since a film like this is de facto privacy invasion itself. Remember the scene where the reporters, camera men and sound men barge into the grieving mother's house? As the scene continues, all the members of the press are thrown out. They leave. But Abby Mann remains. He's invisible, but he's there.
One can hear in the distance -- not faintly, either -- the sound of wolves crying wolf.