"Haven," a four-hour CBS miniseries that tells the story of 982 European Jews allowed "safe haven" in the United States during World War II, is a welcome respite from all the silly, exploitative "reality" TV we've been seeing.
This is reality, too - the kind of historic reality that can make a culture wiser, kinder and more moral when such stories are told on television, the principal storyteller of our time.
"Haven" is loaded with fine acting by exceptional actors - Natasha Richardson, Anne Bancroft, Martin Landau, Colm Feore and Hal Holbrook. There is a grand story arc that takes viewers from the corridors of the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1944 to a devastated Italy teeming with desperate refugees. The journey continues for the Jewish refugees on a U.S. troopship and a harrowing crossing of the Atlantic. It leads not to freedom, but to an internment camp in Oswego, N.Y., where the newcomers wait behind barbed wire as a government rife with anti-Semitism decides their fate.
As powerful as that macro-story is, the greatest attraction is the more personal narrative the producers wisely chose to power this film: the story of Ruth Gruber (Richardson), a young Jewish woman working at a mid-level government job in Washington in 1944 who becomes the rescuer, advocate and champion of the refugees.
The film is based on Gruber's book, "Haven: The Unknown Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America." Her own life story, which includes earning a Ph.D. at age 20 and a career as a foreign correspondent and author of 15 books, is filled with remarkable chapters. But, as the 89-year-old Gruber herself said in an interview last month in Los Angeles, none is as remarkable as the one she lived starting in 1944.
As the film opens, Gruber, a 33-year-old aide to Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes (Hal Holbrook) learns that President Roosevelt has agreed to let 1,000 Jewish refugees enter the United States as temporary "guests" of the U.S. government. Gruber, who speaks German, Yiddish and Hebrew, wants to escort the refugees from Naples, Italy, to New York to help them adjust. Mostly because of her gender, almost everyone is opposed to the plan, from Gruber's mother (Bancroft) to members of the War Refugee Board.
With Ickes' help she wins the assignment, and the journey begins.
Her journey is a hero quest in the classic sense as described by mythologist Joseph Campell: Gruber embodies the highest ideals of the culture, while her story follows the mythic structure of separation (leaving the safety of the United States for war-torn Europe), initiation (she must fight anti-Semitism on board the ship and back in the United States with the refugees in tow) and return. To explain the return phase - in which the hero returns to redeem the culture, often bloodied but always in a more enlightened state of consciousness - we would give away too much of the ending.
But "Haven" offers new twists on the classic version of the hero quest: here, a woman is the hero. And here, we have Jews rescuing Jews - an important change from the stories American media have been telling in recent years about gentiles rescuing Jews during World War II, most notably, in "Schindler's List."
For all it's smart and winning ways, "Haven" isn't flawless. In the early part of the miniseries, Richardson struggles to find a Brooklyn accent circa 1944 with which she seems comfortable. And for too much of the time spent aboard ship, the refugees are a faceless mass mainly evoking only pity. It's not until the end of the sea journey that individuals start to emerge, and we see the character and strength of certain refugees. The best performance here comes from Feore as a former Berlin cabaret entertainer who had been forced to perform at Dachau for the Nazis.(On a local note, some Baltimore viewers might notice that the ship on which Gruber and the refugees travel is the SS John W. Brown, an authentic Liberty ship from Baltimore. Local crew members were among the extras used.)
"Haven" ends on an emotional high, but it's not a sentimental, feel-good movie. This is a great American story, because it tells a shocking truth about America in 1944 and '45: that it was a country in which anti-Semitism ran not only deep into the heartland but also high into the highest reaches of government.
This is television with the potential to make us a better country today, by giving us the chance to face the truth about our past.
Where: WJZ (Channel 13).
When: 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. tomorrow and Wednesday
In brief: A World War II miniseries that dares to tell the truth about American anti-Semitism.