HBO film plods through Truman's life

September 09, 1995|By Michael Blowen | Michael Blowen,Boston Globe

"Truman," like Harry's daughter, Margaret, knows the lyrics -- it just can't sing the song.

Based on David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography with a script by Tom Rickman, who previously penned "Coal Miner's Daughter," and directed by Frank Pierson, who made "Citizen Cohn," this HBO TV movie is much like its subject -- decent, hard-working and, quite frankly, dull.

"Truman" (premiering tonight at 8) unfolds like an entry from an encyclopedia.

Born in Independence, Mo., Truman was a failed farmer at 33 when he enlisted in the Army in 1917. Leaving his fiancee, Bess Wallace, Truman became a captain in the artillery serving in France. After the war, he returned to Missouri, where he failed as a haber--er. When local political boss Tom Pendergast presented him a chance to be county commissioner, Truman jumped at it, as he did later when Pendergast offered up a Senate post.

From senator to vice president to president, both as successor to Franklin Roosevelt and on his own as the long-shot candidate, there's little in "Truman" that we didn't already know about Truman.

There's Truman waving the famous "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline and there's Truman putting "The Buck Stops Here" sign on his desk.

In the name of historical accuracy, the filmmakers have stripped Harry S. Truman of his humanity. They've transformed him into an audio-animatronic figure who utters his homespun tales as if had just escaped from Disney World's Hall of Presidents.

Gary Sinise's Truman looks as if it was pasted on with all the makeup. It's not really the fault of the actor who gave such a fine performance in "Apollo 13" and breathed life into the otherwise caricatured "Forrest Gump." He's certainly got the ability, but his performance here is more impersonation than interpretation.

In some historically based stories the filmmakers decide to emphasize a brief period in a character's life so the work becomes a microcosm of history.

In "Truman," the strokes are too broad to achieve that sort of detail.

Unlike Mr. McCullough's book, which brought Truman to life through the president's letters to his wife, the movie uses only excerpts. As Mr. McCullough makes clear, Truman rose to fit the office.

If only the filmmakers had risen to fit their subject.

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