May 17, 2005

Burying the Catholic Drama

New York Sun

May 17, 2005

Movies about abused children and scandal have been a staple of television for years - all the way back to 1984 and the groundbreaking TV movie "Something About Amelia," in which Ted Danson played a seemingly normal American dad (married to Glenn Close) who sexually abused his daughter. That then-controversial (and Emmy Award-winning) movie propelled sexual abuse into the forefront of American consciousness, and grew Mr. Danson's star power. Now, after an illustrious sitcom career has dissipated into sporadic film work, Mr. Danson returns to the topic in Showtime's "Our Fathers," on the other side of the law.

And, alas, with far less dramatic results. In this overlong Showtime movie (premiering this Saturday at 8 p.m.) about the scandals involving sexually abusive priests in the Boston area, Mr. Danson plays a zealous lawyer who investigates allegations against one local religious leader and stumbles onto a scandal of mammoth proportions. Had we ever understood his character's motivation or background, we might have cared; but in the years since "Amelia" and even "Cheers," Mr. Danson has acted less with his head than he has with the hideous hairpieces he has chosen to put on it. He has evolved into a distraction, not a force, or as the focal point of what might have made a compelling, subtle drama of right and wrong. By focusing on Mr. Danson's detective work - instead of the more dramatic battle taking place within the local archdiocese - "Our Fathers" goes wide of the mark.

It's an unfortunate miss, especially when measured against the potential for powerful storytelling in the premise. Its great virtue lies in two key supporting performances: Christopher Plummer as Cardinal Bernard Law, who tried everything he could to suppress the scandal; and Brian Dennehy, who worked just as relentlessly to fan its flames. Only after an extended prologue - with prolonged and tedious scenes of middle-aged men experiencing their tortured recollections of childhood abuse, then seeking out Mr. Danson's help - do Messrs. Plummer and Dennehy even show up. Whenever they appear on screen, the movie comes to life; the energy of their conflict takes us into the murkier moral questions at the scandal's core. Do any of us really doubt the horror of child abuse by priests? Of course not. But what's even more terrifying is the notion of the church's leadership (reaching nearly all the way to the Vatican) hiding its scandals for the sake of its reputation, and putting the faith of its followers in jeopardy.

Posted by kshaw at May 17, 2005 07:43 AM