`Stories' isn't half bad

Goldblum shines, but Bell stinks in `War'

January 29, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Is America ready for a prime-time television series featuring a foreign correspondent and photographer from a daily newspaper in Baltimore?

Probably not, based on the made-for-television movie, War Stories, premiering at 8 tonight on NBC as a tryout for a possible weekly dramatic series starring Jeff Goldblum and Lake Bell.

War Stories, which is set in the midst of a fictional civil war in the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan, isn't a bad television movie. In fact, it has quite a bit going for it. Start with Goldblum playing Ben Dansmore, reporter for the Baltimore Globe, as an older but far more serious and highly principled version of the People magazine reporter he played in the 1983 feature film The Big Chill.

War Stories opens with Dansmore's best friend, the Globe photographer in Uzbekistan, getting killed. That death haunts Dansmore throughout the movie. Goldblum does haunted-by-the-past as well as anyone around - OK, anyone on television this side of Dennis Franz, anyway.

But he's only half the equation. Bell as the "rookie" (NBC's word) photographer Nora Stone, who is sent in to Uzbekistan by the Globe to replace Dansmore's dead buddy, is another matter altogether. What creator Peter Noah (Anything But Love) is trying for here is a television version of Sandra Bullock. Think cute, plucky and so determined to be taken seriously that she sometimes comes off as ridiculous. But competence and maybe even courage are also part of the package once she picks herself up off the floor.

That's what Noah's trying for anyway. But Bell doesn't quite deliver. Instead of Bullock, what we mainly get is bull, a character in whom it is very hard to believe, let alone care about.

Bell simply is not a talented or maybe experienced enough actress to be both assertive and vulnerable at the same time. As for using her body to undercut her good looks with occasionally awkward or silly movements, as Bullock does so well, Bell doesn't have a clue. That would be a third dimension of performance, and she's still working on No. 1: Making her character convincing.

To make matters worse, Noah is reaching for something big and fairly deep in a cultural sense with the character of Nora Stone; her sister was killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and she lives with that ghost on her shoulder. Noah wants to use Stone as a way to tap into the vast reservoir of national emotion connected with those horrendous attacks.

I appreciate his reach as a writer, but his mistake as executive producer in casting the role only makes the hole at the center of his drama that much more glaring. That abyss is never more apparent than when, toward the end of the movie, he brings Dansmore and Stone face to face in a cave with the Bin Laden-like leader of the al-Qaida-backed Islamic rebels in Uzbekistan and she interrupts Dansmore's interview to tearfully ask why he and his followers attacked the United States on 9/11.

Noah tries to paper over the void by giving lots of airtime to the second most important female character, Gayle Phelan (Louise Lombard), whom the NBC press materials describe as a "wildly ambitious and seductive" newsmagazine reporter. Mainly, what that translates to onscreen is that she sleeps with every male correspondent who knocks on her hotel room door, including Dansmore.

I'll give her this, she's more interesting than Stone, but that's because Lombard can act a bit. Not that anyone is ever going to confuse her performance with the brilliant work Emma Thompson did in a similar wartime community in Fortunes of War.

All that said, War Stories could still make it to series. In addition to Goldblum, it does have the advantage of very good timing, what with all the talk of war with Iraq on the airwaves.

But my guess is that War Stories will prove timing isn't everything - not when you toy with the kind of profound collective emotions that it does and then fail to deliver a satisfying payoff.

War Stories

When: 8 tonight

Where: WBAL (Channel 11)

In brief: A drama about war correspondents that aims high but misses its cultural mark.

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