Nuclear holocaust is back on TV, and it‘s about time. We’ve gotten so used to all those bombs sitting around not going off that it‘s tempting to imagine they never will, and while it’s nice not to have to go around rehearsing the old duck and cover 24-7, a little bit of classic Cold War dread is, practically speaking, probably not such a bad thing. Of course, people have been thinking about the end of the world for a long time, since way before the DIY element crept in, of all-consuming fire and floods and plagues rained down by God or nature — I suppose as a kind of macrocosmic metaphor for one‘s own inevitable end (we are the world), and as a spur to ”one hour to live“ mind games that aren’t entirely pointless if they help you to notice that you‘re not dead and to treat other people well. Anyway, killer asteroids having briefly replaced manmade terror from the skies in the popular apocalyptic imagination, we are now back to the Big One, with television remakes of Fail-Safe and On the Beach following each other in quick succession. The last time the medium managed to get this worked up over this stuff was ABC’s big-event The Day After, a two-night dramatization of the latest best guesses of what an atomic donnybrook would do to our sorry ass, and that was 17 years ago.
Though a Showtime movie, On the Beach is essentially an Australian show, from Nevil Shute, on whose 1957 novel the film (updated to 2006) is based; to director Russell Mulcahy (Highlander) and scriptwriter David Williamson (whose Phar Lap, The Year of Living Dangerously and Gallipoli qualify him as the antipodean William Goldman); to stars (and real-life spouses) Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward, together again on American TV for the first time since The Thorn Birds, a fact some people will actually find interesting; to its setting: In the aftermath of a nuclear war they had nothing to do with, the Aussies, whose cities are still standing and whose countryside remains green and skies blue, and who are apparently the last people left on Earth — what about the presidents and prime ministers in their mile-deep bunkers, I wanted to know — wait for them big invisible clouds of fallout to get down their way. Which they do. (The world dies first with a bang, then a whimper.) The novel was first filmed in 1959 by Stanley Kramer, a director for whom social conscience constituted an aesthetic; Brown and Ward take roles Kramer gave to Fred Astaire and Ava Gardner, while moody, broody Armand Assante — would it be a TV movie without him? — follows Gregory Peck as an American submarine captain who, with Ward, finds a few last moments of love in the ruins.
The film is a pro job, by which I mean that nothing about it is particularly bad, and not much is particularly good. It just cruises along mid-channel, not especially convincing, not especially stirring; it won‘t blow your mind or break your heart, though the subject itself — the end of everything that breathes, and of sitcoms and left-hand turns and orthodonture and tiki torches and all the hallmarks of our civilization — guarantees it’ll be ”thought-provoking.“ You may indeed do some of the thinking the filmmakers neglected to. Given the hugeness and solemnity of the denouement, four hours does not seem too long a time to expend getting there — and yet one wishes for not quite such a slow death as this. (Just because TV can be long doesn‘t mean it necessarily should be.) We must ask how interesting are the people with whom we’ve been asked to spend the end of all human endeavor, and the unfortunate answer is, only passably. Assante is, you know . . . moody . . . broody. The classic Armand. As an irritating Told-You-So scientist, Brown is more irritating than he needs to be, and not nearly as charming as he‘s supposed to be. And Ward, playing an inveterate party girl, is regal and good-looking, and generous in showing off her bare back, but she will insist on calling it ”nukular war“ and, like the others, doesn’t have much more to do than embody an attitude and hold up her end of the little-developed dialectic.
In Shute‘s book, the luckless last citizens meet their end with a stiff upper lip and an efficient calm, as if they were merely shutting up the country house for the off-season. And they don’t forget to have some fun before they go. Mulcahy and Williamson throw in a little street-ratty social disorder (this is the land of Mad Max) and some arty tableaux of depressed people staring at nothing, but the original version — which also lacks this film‘s silly mushy finish — is really the more interesting. Imminent universal extinction — what could be more leveling, more liberating? ”We will all go together when we go,“ Tom Lehrer sang back when people thought a lot harder about this shit. ”What a comforting fact that is to know.“
Some people see the beginning of the end of the world as a kind of daily occurrence. Showtime’s Dirty Pictures (not to be confused with the same network‘s recent, terrible Rated X, about San Francisco’s Mitchell Brothers) dramatizes and comments upon, with a rare if not wholly successful attempt at balance, the religio-political furor over the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center‘s 1990 exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, and the subsequent indictment and criminal obscenity trial of the center’s director, Dennis Barrie. That there would ever be a TV movie about this, let alone one that actually showed the disputed photographs (fisting, water sports, naked children), is nothing I would ever have laid money on — though I would have laid money on it starring James Woods, who‘s there for the roles Armand Assante is too stocky for — and I am happy to find that television still can surprise me in ways other than unpleasantly.
Directed by Frank Pierson (who scripted Dog Day Afternoon and Cool Hand Luke), the film combines dramatic re-creation and supposition with news clips and real-life talking-head commentary, which makes it, in a sense, a kind of a rarefied version of America’s Most Wanted. (Very rarefied: Commentators include William F. Buckley, Salman Rushdie, Fran Leibowitz, former NEA chairman John Frohmeyer, ACLU president Nadine Strossen, choreographer Bill T. Jones, art dealer Mary Boone and Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, where the Sensation show caused a similar, if less judicially drastic, uproar.) Each side is given its say (in voices both calm and hysterical), and yet the film doesn‘t quite play fair. It falls almost necessarily on the side of the defense — partly out of the conventions of courtroom drama, which demand that a defendant, unless he’s killed someone or is a corporate scumbag, be the protagonist, but more from the always-evident fact that the film would not even have been made except as a defense of freedom of expression: It displays, after all, the very images that put Barrie on trial. In dozens of small and less small ways, from the physiognomy of the actors, to the soundtrack (stirring music underlies the museum director‘s victory speech), to such tropes of the form as the prejudiced judge, the unctuous prosecutor and the defendant’s spouse cracking under the strain (Diana Scarwid, always nice to see her), the filmmakers are telling you what to think, not so much by what they say as by the way they say it.
But overall it‘s a welcome and intelligent piece of work, and if it raises more questions than it has time or the will to adequately discuss (concerning government funding of the arts, the nature of obscenity and the definition of art), at least it raises them. It doesn’t try to establish that Mapplethorpe was a great artist (indeed, it suggests he might not have been), only that the First Amendment might protect his exhibitors from jail, whether the work is crap or not (as screenwriter Ilene Chaiken would have to believe, having also penned Pam Anderson‘s Barb Wire). And you are always free to disagree, to turn away, to not tune in to begin with. That’s what fucking makes this a fucking great fucking country. Fuckin‘ A!
Note: Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment can be seen at the Santa Monica Museum of Art through June 10. See Museum listings for details.