'Infiltrator' gets in, but never peaks

June 24, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

HBO Pictures seldom miss.

"Barbarians at the Gate," "Citizen Cohn," "Somebody Has to Shoot the Picture" have all been worth going out of your way to see.

"The Infiltrator," a new HBO film premiering at 8 tonight, is not in that class. But it's definitely worth a look and better than most made-for-TV movies premiering on a Saturday night in June.

It's an intelligent film that combines action, good technical quality and some exceptional acting. But, in the final analysis, it's a thriller that fizzles instead of sizzles down the homestretch, a setup without much of a punch line.

Based on the nonfiction book "In Hitler's Shadow," the film follows an Israeli journalist (Oliver Platt) as he goes inside Germany's neo-Nazi movement. But when the magazine for which he's working won't commit the money he needs to stay on the story, the journalist becomes an investigator for the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, an organization that monitors hate crimes.

The film is based on a true story, and its adherence to the facts is part of what cripples it dramatically. As a result of the journalist's job switch, viewers do not get the satisfaction of seeing hatemongers exposed on the cover of a national magazine or during a network news broadcast. No one's going to be led away in handcuffs on-screen.

The "big" dramatic moment of the film involves a computer printout. The camera shows us a computer printing a list of names -- names that mean nothing to you or me. They are the names of "respectable" Germans who hold neo-Nazi points of view, and they are going into a file at the Wiesenthal Center. End of story.

You could argue that those viewers who are familiar with the Wiesenthal Center's work in tracking Nazi war criminals might walk away from the television set with the satisfying expectation that someday those neo-Nazis named in the printout might be exposed. But I see it as a failed imitation of director Alan J. Pakula's camera showing film-goers the page as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein type such names as Richard Nixon and Bob Haldeman in "All the President's Men."

There's another problem with the film. It was obviously made for European distribution, as well as HBO's American audience. That means there's a whole lot of dubbing going on. Some of the actors are speaking German on-camera, which has been changed to English in post-production. The result is some weird phrasing, as English sentences are dubbed to fit the mouth movements of those actors who are speaking German.

For example, when the undercover reporter calls his American ++ magazine editor to tell him about the growing neo-Nazi movement, he exclaims, "This story has legs like a giraffe!"

You want to add, "Yes, and a nose like a turtle!"

Produced by Britain's Brian Eastman, the film is, however, full of the powerful audio-verite of overlapping soundtracks that made "Traffik" -- Eastman's acclaimed miniseries about drug lords -- feel high-tech, true to life, compelling and perfectly paced. Furthermore, as you would expect in an Eastman production, the performances -- down to the one-line parts -- are top-of-the-line. They include Arliss Howard as an authority on Nazis and Peter Riegert and Alan King as deans at the center.

"Infiltrator" tells an important story; it's just that the storytelling leaves something to be desired in terms of drama.

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