'On Thin Ice' barely skims the surface of Babilonia's life


November 05, 1990|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Good ice skating. Bad acting. Not a bad story. But too bad the producers didn't take the time to see if their particular story was representative of some larger truths about the way we live.

That's the score card for "On Thin Ice: The Tai Babilonia Story" at 9 tonight on WMAR-TV (Channel 2). If I were an Olympic judge, my score card would read 8 for technical achievement and 4 for artistic merit.

"On Thin Ice" is the "fact-based" story of Tai Babilonia, the teen-age ice skater who was expected to win a gold medal with her partner, Randy Gardner, at the 1980 Olympics. Randy and Tai (played by Charlie Stratton and Rachael Crawford) were the darlings of the pre-Olympic television hoopla. But at the last minute, it was revealed that Gardner was injured -- he had torn a leg muscle. The television coverage of their initial attempt to compete and then the withdrawal from competition -- with commentator Dick Button on the verge of tears -- made it seem as if we were witnessing a tragedy of national proportions.

"On Thin Ice" isn't interested in looking at the value system that results in such excessive expectations put on teen athletes and such overreaction to their performances. Instead it wants to take us "behind the headlines," as the press releases say.

What that means is that viewers spend a lot of time tonight watching the decline of Babilonia after the Olympic failure. They see her drinking whiskey straight from a bottle, gulping pills by the handful, begging for help, breaking down, crawling under a bathroom vanity in a Las Vegas hotel and curling up in a fetal position when she just can't take it any more. This near-total breakdown comes after she and Randy join the ice-show circuit as professionals and then are fired because of her addictions. Viewers will also see Babilonia's comeback, though they will not really understand what accounted for the turnaround.

The film is not a hopelessly superficial one. Time is spent in the opening segments showing how a precocious girl can lose her childhood to her talent if her parents aren't careful. But, as is often the case with such docudramas, the producers are careful not to come down too hard on any living person. The result is that again the viewer is left a little confused -- never knowing where to fix the blame.

Much of the skating is done by Babilonia and Gardner themselves. The movie occasionally soars when they and other experts are shown skating. Otherwise, it mainly struggles along earnestly trying to stay on its feet.

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