Bad Flashbacks

Elian, Hendrix made-for-TV biographies shortchange the truth, and the viewer, with cheap ploys, sorry acting and casual ignorance.

September 16, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Did you know that 5-year-old Elian Gonzalez was on the verge of being devoured by a shark in the stormy waters off the coast of Florida, when a school of dolphins magically appeared, did battle with the shark and chased it away?

And, then, miracle of miracles, the dolphins lined up on one side of the inner tube in which little Elian was clinging to life and pushed him all the way to shore - kind of like football players pushing a blocking sled.

And, as they pushed, the night sky magically lightened and sweet, soft music filled the air. The only things missing were three wise men riding swordfish and a chorus of mackerel singing "Silent Night."

There's nothing quite as awful as a bad made-for-television movie biography, unless it is a bad made-for-television movie biography that's been ripped from the headlines. We have one of each airing tomorrow night - The Elian Gonzalez Story" on the Fox Family Channel, and "Hendrix," the story of the legendary 1960s guitar player Jimi Hendrix, airing on Showtime.

Each is awful in its own way. But each is also culturally fascinating in the strange ways they attempt to explain our history and/or help us make sense of recent political events. When you think about 10 or 15 million of us getting what the cable channels try to make us believe is the untold story on the lives of public figures like Gonzalez and Hendrix from these crackpot films, you start to wonder why we're not even more confused than we are about our past and world events.

"The Elian Gonzalez Story" is by far the worse of the two, as it purports to tell the story of the Cuban child rescued Nov. 25, 1999, off the coast of Florida after his mother and 10 other refugees were drowned in a storm as they attempted to sail in their makeshift boat to the United States.

After being rescued by a fisherman, Elian was placed in the temporary custody of his great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez, where he became the focus of a political tug of war with the Cuban-American community on one side and Elian's father, the Cuban government and the United States Justice Department on the other. The battle came to a head April 22 when U.S. marshals staged a pre-dawn raid on the home of Lazaro Gonzalez and took Elian away. The picture of one of the marshals in full battle gear and gas mask pointing his rifle at Elian and the man who was holding the boy ran on the front page of virtually every newspaper in the United States the next day.

"The Elian Gonzalez Story" is not so much an actual story as it is the re-enactment of a series of scenes made familiar from news accounts strung together to look like a movie. There is absolutely no narrative arc. If you are foolish enough to stay with it all the way, when it ends with Elian back on the streets of Cuba playing soccer under his father's eye, you are going to be left staring at the screen waiting for something that feels like a real ending to unfold.

The lack of any emotional payoff for viewers is not just the fault of Dennis Turner's script. There's this tiny problem with the acting: the actors in the lead role can't act, and the actors in the supporting roles who can act are given such limited characters to work with all they can do is stand around looking stoic, pained or angry.

The emotional center of the film is supposed to be Elian and Marisleysis Gonzalez, Lazaro's 21-year-old daughter, who "forms a special bond with Elian," in the language of the Fox press release. Actually, it's a little more than a special bond.

Right after we see the screwball Disney-does-Bethlehem dolphin rescue re-enactment, we cut to Marisleysis tucking Elian into bed. With tears in her eyes, she says, "God brought you to us. It was the hand of God that led you here. Holy Mary, mother of God, let us be worthy of this child."

And, then, as she takes a gold crucifix on a chain from around her neck and puts it on Elian, she says, "Nothing will ever hurt you again, Elian. And no one, no one, will ever take you away from me."

Knowing what we know about the outcome, we are, of course, supposed to be weeping buckets here.

The problem is the two actors in the scene, Alec Roberts as Elian and Laura Elena Haring as Marisleysis, combined have less experience or talent than either one (take your pick) of the Olsen twins. Six-year-old Roberts has been in two regional commercials, and Haring's resume runs from roles on the soap operas "Sunset Beach" and ""General Hospital" to guest appearances on shows like "Baywatch."

Haring's job here is mainly to smile a madonna-like smile every time she holds Elian and to get hysterical when they take him away. Hysteria is well beyond her range. Roberts spends the whole film trying to look wide-eyed. He almost gets it right.

I could pound away all day on this film, but I'll limit myself to what makes me most angry. Fox Family Channel promotes itself to parents as programming the whole family can watch. Indeed, the film starts at 8 p.m. tomorrow, a time when many families try to watch together.

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