Two TV movies mix love and tragedy
We Are the Children ABC, Monday, 9-11 p.m. Stars: Ted Danson, Ally Sheedy, and Judith Ivey. Writer: Michael de Guzman. Director: Robert M. Young. Producers: Paulist Productions in association with Dan Fucia/Ted Danson Productions. In Love and War NBC, Monday, 9-11 p.m. Stars James Woods, Jane Alexander, and Dr. Haing S. Ngor. Writer/producer: Carol Schreder. Director: Paul Aaron. In a rather ironic twist, famine and torture become the backdrops for two ostensibly inspirational films airing opposite each other Monday. While neither of these made-for-TV movies exploits its fact-based background - the African famine and the Vietnam war - there is something vaguely distasteful about employing tragic real-life situations in the service of dramas that are essentially traditional love stories.
``We Are the Children'' on ABC spins a simple tale of a cold, humorless, idealistic female doctor (Ally Sheedy) in Ethiopia who runs across a warm, witty, handsome, seduction-minded photographer (played by Ted Danson,on leave from ``Cheers''). Before you know it ... well, there is actually a line in which she tells him she feels guilty, because ``I used you to get rid of my pain....''
Sheedy plays the doctor with such monotonous vapidity, though, that it's hard to believe there's any real commitment to acting, let alone relief of suffering.
Meanwhile, there are those all-too-familiar pictures of malnourished children and of Africans dying. In the midst of the suffering there is a warm, understanding, and charming nun, who never loses her faith - portrayed effectively by Judith Ivey.
The film jumps, a bit confusedly, into the politics of hunger, while the doctor, determined to carry her newfound commitment beyond causes to people, decides the world will help if only she can convince her photographer friend to have his film footage distributed worldwide. When he succeeds, the help does come. But the romance isn't tied up in a neat package: The photographer must pay his debt to commercial TV by leaving Ethiopia for an assignment in Afghanistan. Jane Alexander as Mrs. Stockdale
``In Love and War'' on NBC features Jane Alexander in her longest-suffering, noblest role yet. In this fact-based drama she plays the wife of American naval commander Jim Stockdale, who spent around eight years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam while she fought to free him and the other POWs from their ordeal of daily torture. All the while, the United States government refused to admit that this torture was going on.
The film makes no attempt to soften the predicament of the prisoners; so viewers should be prepared for two full hours of both physical and psychological abuse, conveyed realistically with James Woods as Stockdale. Much of the complexity of the situation is lost because of the need to compress eight years of history into two hours. But, in the end, the family is reunited, and all's right with the commander's world.
Both films have threads of joy and inspiration because they deal with people who faced enormous difficulties and managed to survive - with love and without bitterness.
But both also try to convey a great deal of human suffering in the framework of traditional TV drama. I can't help feeling that both topics would have been better served in the nonfiction documentary form.