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History of `Lady Liberty' unveiled in TV movie. Film escapes typical problems of docudrama

``What's that island over there -- the one with the goats on it?'' asks sculptor Fr'ed'eric Auguste Bartholdi from the deck of a sailing ship as it approaches New York harbor. ``That would be Bedloe's Island, sir,'' comes the answer.

The year is 1871 and Bartholdi, creator of the Statue of Liberty, can all but see his great work standing there -- even though, at this point, it exists only in his mind's eye.

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Moments like these are typical in the timely -- and perhaps inevitable -- made-for-TV movie Liberty (Monday, June 23, 8-11 p.m.) with which NBC is marking the massive July 4 centennial celebration of the statue. The show is a dramatized retelling of how it was conceived and created, and of the 17-year struggle to get it constructed, shipped across the Atlantic, and -- most troublesome -- financed.

This history is a natural for a TV movie: epic in length, international in scope, full of problems that are overcome in a victory whose palpable form has become a great national symbol. Though it throws in everybody from New York's Boss Tweed to President Ulysses S. Grant, the film escapes the typical problems of docudrama by making no effort at a documentary ``feel.'' This is straight historical drama, and for those willing to sit back and accept the story -- and not worry about which characters are real and which apocryphal -- it gathers force, becoming a good deal more than the historical mishmash it may seem at first.

Starting with the rebellions against Napoleon III that tore France in the 1860s, the tale lets the statue itself play a minor role in the first third, when the personal stories need time to establish themselves. Although these individual characters -- ranging from Bartholdi himself to an immigrant coppersmith -- can be compelling, the tale is better when dealing directly with the history and sociology of the event, however embroidered they may be at times. And it is at its most interesting when treating the physical aspects of the statue itself. It is then that the commitment of Bartholdi and the others seems most real.

The closer, for instance, that Frank Langella's skillful portrayal of the brooding Bartholdi adheres to the sculptor's pursuit of the statue's creation, the more convincing it becomes. The statue's proximity lends substance to the role's image of the sober visionary. In selling the statue to prospective funders -- unveiling a model and describing what it will symbolize to exiles -- Langella's Bartholdi can say ``Liberty is priceless'' in a matter-of-fact way that makes you believe he believes it.

The looming presence of the statue, as it nears the end of its hard road to completion, also transforms the character of the drama itself, giving it point and a degree of historical grandeur. It brings together the separate characters of the story. It captures the immigrant ideal as Emma Lazarus delivers her ``Give me your tired'' poem to help the Liberty campaign -- as indeed it did. The statue's physical presence even justifies the unguarded rush of sentiment at the film's very end, when snippets of the story and brief future images of New York's modern cityscape are superimposed against the finished statue.

Much of the action is played against a Baltimore location site that looks remarkably like what mid-19th-century New York waterfront must have: urban but still raw. And several strong performances are there to help. As a French-Jewish coppersmith who works on the statue, Chris Sarandon is forceful and quirky. Thanks to columnist and author Pete Hamill, who wrote the script, Sarandon's informative talk about coppersmith lore contributes more to the heart of the story than philosophizing would have. Dana Delaney is a joy as Chris's Irish-American wife, Moya, an intelligent, uneducated woman full of vulnerability and tenderness. George Kennedy has a delightfully boisterous dignity as the Irish boss of the coppersmiths. And with the assurance of a master, Claire Bloom performs a delicate juggling act with the contrasting severity and cloyingness of her rather unpleasant character, Bartholdi's mother.

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