Strength of self ties to strength of others

Sarandon puts doctor in tight focus


April 19, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Seeing an Oscar-winning actress like Susan Sarandon deliver a riveting and memorable performance is more than most viewers might expect of any movie made for a television network other than HBO. Seeing Sarandon deliver that performance in a made-for-TV movie that has some wisdom to impart in its own right might seem even more improbable.

But Ice Bound: A Woman's Survival at the South Pole, which airs tomorrow night on CBS, has them both. And one can't help but wonder why such a special television movie is not airing during May sweeps, which start next week.

Sadly, the answer probably has something to do with Sarandon's criticism of the war in Iraq, which has resulted in an invitation from the United Way of Tampa Bay being withdrawn and cancellation by the Baseball Hall of Fame of an event celebrating the baseball film Bull Durham, in which she starred.

CBS can find two sweeps nights (May 18 and 20) for a controversial docudrama about Adolf Hitler, Hitler: The Rise of Evil, but none for an inspirational film starring this gifted actress who dared to flash the peace sign during the Academy Awards telecast.

Ice Bound features Sarandon as Dr. Jerri Nielsen, a 46-year- old physician from Ohio who in 1999 arrived at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station on Antarctica as the doctor-in-residence. Nielsen's tour of duty was to last for a year, but several months into it, she discovered a lump in her breast.

Worse, it happened during the winter, a period when temperatures plunge to 100 below zero, making it impossible for planes to land without their fuel turning to jelly.

Nielsen, who started out maintaining considerable emotional distance from the other members of the team of scientists and construction workers, was now stranded with them and the lump was growing in her breast.

The scene in which Nielsen self-administers a biopsy is edge-of-the-seat mesmerizing, and it is all Sarandon. She focuses so much energy on the spot where the needle meets her skin that everything else on the television screen and, indeed, in the world seems to melt away.

Director Roger Spottiswoode (And the Band Played On) wisely clears the scene of almost everything and everybody else, and lets the actress pull the camera closer and closer through the force of her focus. The moment when the needle breaks Sarandon's skin is the moment that the viewer viscerally understands the monumental force of will that allowed Nielsen to perform the biopsy and then self-administer chemotherapy until a rescue plane could make it to the South Pole.

The wisdom here involves Nielsen's learning both how strong she is as an individual and, yet, how much she needs others in this strange community at the South Pole.

Her hero quest takes her to this perilous testing ground, and there she learns the lesson that while we all might die alone, a commitment to community can extend and enrich life immeasurably.

Seeing such truth dramatized so engagingly is the stuff of which art is made. It would be a pity to let politics get in the way of such work finding an audience.

Ice Bound

When: Tomorrow night at 9

When: WJZ (channel 13)

In brief: Susan Sarandon shines in a story of community and courage.

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