You knew it was inevitable, of course, even that night of Oct. 17 last year: There would be a made-for-TV movie about the earthquake which struck the San Francisco/Oakland area during pre-game activities of the World Series. (Actually, an episode of the series "Midnight Caller" already managed to get on the air last spring with a quake show.)
But the surprise of "After the Shock," premiering on the USA basic cable network at 9 tonight (with repeats Sept. 16 and Sept. 22), is that it is much, much better than might have been predicted from previous TV-movie exploitations of real tragedies.
The reason is that the film, like Joe Friday, sticks to the facts. With videotape footage taken during the tragedy blended pretty seamlessly into staged action with actors (and even a couple real survivors), it focuses on just a few claustrophobic rescues.
There's no hokey story line invented to illustrate composite victims, no gimmick of a news reporter getting people to tell their stories, nor even any attempt to provide perspective, meaning or analysis. Indeed, "After the Shock" may not be a movie so much as a further development of the news re-creation technique so controversial in recent years. But boy, does it ever work here as a powerful set of stories.
Opening with ABC sportscaster Al Michaels' interrupted call of the quake, as seen by millions, the film alternates visits to five rescue scenes: three spots on the collapsed Cypress Freeway structure, a fallen building on Fillmore Street and a burning apartment house in the Marina District.
Scott Valentine, Jack Scalia, Yaphet Kotto, Richard Anthony Crenna and Tuck Milligan portray real San Franciscans who took part in rescue efforts. (At movie's end, we meet the survivors with their actor counterparts.) Except for Valentine as firefighter Gerry Shannon (who is seen as another firefighter in the film), the heroes are every-day citizens.
Viewers are inevitably led to ask, what would I do to help in such a situation? And how would I react to witnessing death and destruction?
The most vivid portrayal, perhaps, is that of Shannon (Valentine) using a chain saw to cut through building wreckage to reach trapped resident Sherra Cox (played by Rue McClanahan) while the building is burning down around them.
But Scalia's portrayal of machinist Jack Thompson's 4 1/2 -hour hack saw rescue of a trapped motorist on the lower deck of the freeway is almost equally dramatic. In part, that is because victim Nick Zaninovich apparently entertained his rescuers with humor. (We also learn at close that the real Zaninovich portrays himself in the movie.)
For instance, Scalia must leave the crushed car to get some tools and shouts, "I'll be right back." From inside, we hear the victim shout back, "I'll be here."