Leonard Nimoy shines as ordinary man who aims to prove Holocaust was real

April 08, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Never Forget" is almost terrific.

But it's a big almost.

The two-hour docudrama, airing at 8 tonight on cable channel TNT, stars Leonard Nimoy as Mel Mermelstein, a real person who survived the Holocaust in Europe in the 1940s and then, 40 years later, took on a group in California who tried to deny that the Holocaust happened.

The revisionist group, called the Institute for Historical Review, be came aware of Mermelstein after he wrote letters to newspapers in California objecting to articles that treated their position seriously. The group challenged Mermelstein to appear

in a court they set up and prove Jews were killed in mass numbers.

Nimoy delivers a knockout performance as a rather ordinary man who feels compelled to take on a group in this extraordinary way. The revisionists are not just doubters -- they have battle plans, an organization and money. But Mermelstein, who saw his mother and sisters murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, stands up against these vaguely sinister men. His courage is stirring.

In TNT's telling, Mermelstein does stand nearly alone, as the Jewish organization from whom he seeks help tells him to ignore the revisionists. Mermelstein feels compelled not to ignore them, and the film is good enough that many viewers will feel compelled to travel with him through those nightmare years. "Never Forget" shows us that the past is always with us.

What stops the story and a first-rate supporting cast -- with Blythe Danner as Jane Mermelstein and Dabney Coleman as William Cox, Mermelstein's attorney -- from being a great made-for-TV movie is the final court scene.

In real life, Cox and Mermelstein came up with a strategy aimed at getting the revisionists into a real court of law, with the hope that a judge might officially rule on whether or not the Holocaust occurred. They did that by accepting the institute's initial challenge. Then, when the institute failed to respond, Cox charged it with breach of contract and got it into a U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

The film builds to that courtroom scene. But, as scriptwriter Ronald Rubin depicts it, the courtroom drama in district court is not much drama at all. We see and hear very little of the other side -- the revisionists -- and there is little feel for who and what they are.

So, when the judge renders his verdict -- providing the first official judicial notice that the Holocaust occurred -- it does not feel like much of a climax.

This may be an accurate ending. But if it is, the film should have been structured much differently. It should not have led us up the mountain -- bracing us for a loud, righteous clap of thunder -- and then left us standing there, hoping to hear the answer blowing in the wind.

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