'Almost Golden' loses its glitter and integrity as soon as the lies begin

September 04, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story" almost gets a passing grade. But, in the end, fine acting performances by Sela Ward and Ron Silver are overshadowed by the docudrama's failure to deal responsibly with the facts -- even by the rather shabby standards of docudrama.

Jessica Savitch, for those not familiar with her, was one of the first women to become a network correspondent and anchorperson when she joined NBC in 1977 at the age of 30. She became somewhat famous as a result of her on-air work, which consisted primarily of reading news updates and anchoring the Sunday night news.

But she became downright infamous in 1983 when she went on the air stoned on coke and stumbled through an NBC news brief. Savitch died a tabloid death one night later that year when she drowned in a car that plunged into a rain-swollen canal.

Lifetime's telling of Savitch's life story, which premieres at 8 tonight on the cable channel, picks her up at age 23, a cub reporter at KHOU-TV, the CBS affiliate in Houston. She's hungry, ruthless and raw. But the news director and the camera like her. Before you can say Q-rating, she's on her way to Philadelphia, then the fourth-largest television market in the country, as a reporter for KYW, the Westinghouse-owned station.

It's not too long before her ambition and the reaction of Philadelphia viewers to her television image have Savitch sitting at the KYW anchor desk. She becomes a huge hit, leading the station to first place in the ratings. Her call to the major leagues comes in the form of an offer from NBC to cover the Senate in Washington and anchor the Sunday night news from New York.

It's during the NBC years that Lifetime, the self-proclaimed women's channel, starts bailing out on the facts in favor of creating a victim/heroine.

Savitch was a disaster as a Senate correspondent. In Lifetime's version, she's a disaster because all the men are meanies; they won't even tell her how to find the gallery or the library.

Of course there was sexism. And, of course, the Senate is one of the worst old-white-men's clubs in the universe. But this kind of revisionist history does a disservice to the many newswomen who covered Congress with distinction in the 1970s and since. They found out where the library was and did their homework there -- something Savitch didn't have time for, with her limousine, personal hairdresser and other perks aimed at enhancing her image rather than her expertise.

There are other factual problems. An abortion that Savitch had is portrayed as a miscarriage, the result of finding her second husband hanged in their basement. The film also fails to note that the second husband, a Washington medical doctor, was a homosexual.

I could go on about the fact problems, but what really troubles me about "Almost Golden" is its unwillingness to indict the one villain, outside of Savitch's personal demons, responsible for her undoing: the culture of television news.

Television news celebrates some of the worst values of our culture ofnarcissism: Image is more important than substance, winning is all that matters, and bigger (as in, working in a bigger market) is always better. Buying into those values at the expense of any real sense of self is what led to Savitch's drug addiction and demise, according to many who worked with her. As deep as it gets in "Almost Golden" is to say that television news is a matter of cutthroat competition. Wow, is that really true?

Is there any reason to watch the film? Yes. Ward, an Emmy Award-winning actress from "Sisters," is terrific -- especially in her scenes with Silver, who plays Ron Kershaw, a television newsman who is supposed to be the real love of Savitch's life. (Local footnote: Kershaw briefly worked in Baltimore in the late 1970s).

Another reason to watch "Almost Golden" is Lifetime's "Intimate Portrait: Jessica Savitch" special that follows at 10 tonight. The special includes interviews with Savitch's sister, Stephanie, as well as with the author of the biography on which the film is loosely based. The author, Alana Nash, manages to set the record straight on some of the facts (such as the abortion, for example).

So, why make a film that lies? As the disclaimer at the start of tonight's docudrama says, "Some names have been changed and composite characters used and some scenes and dialogue have been created for dramatic purposes."

With docudrama, truth almost always loses when it comes to the higher calling of "dramatic purposes." That's entertainment.

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