`Wallenberg': disappointing treatment of a heroic and inspiring story

Commercial entertainment television in the past decade has not hesitated to handle any subject -- from the most currently relevant to the most universally momentous. In many cases the result has been trendy electronic chic -- contemporary problems that should not be ignored but also do not benefit very much from the once-over-lightly treatment. The fact that most of these made-for-TV problem-of-the-week dramas are going basically for audience numbers inevitably results in added love interest or anything that surveys indicate will make people watch ``unpleasant'' subject matter. We've suffered through many of them, found a few temporarily rewarding, resented the superficial cashing-in aspect of others. In recent years there have been at least temporarily satisfying dramas about missing children, abused wives, teen suicide.

By far the most memorable ``relevant'' drama in recent years was the triumph by Vanessa Redgrave in the CBS version of Arthur Miller's ``Playing for Time.'' It is still remembered for its writing, acting, and mostly the unforgettable circumstances it so vividly pictured.

More recently there was the Jason Robards performance in HBO's ``Sakharov.'' This, however, falls into a different classification -- TV plays that deal with subject matter so universally important that despite faults the fact that they are being done at all makes up for a multitude of minor sins of obviousness and craftsmanship.

Probably the prime example of that was Gerald Green's miniseries on NBC, ``Holocaust,'' a simplistic soap-operish view of one of the major tragedies of modern times. Like the famous presidential heads on Mt. Rushmore, the momentousness of the subject matter, the enormity of the project make pointing out the close-up flaws in execution seem like ungrateful quibbling.

Which brings me to ``Wallenberg: A Hero's Story'' (NBC, Monday and Tuesday, April 8 and 9, 9-11 p.m., check local listings).

The story of Raoul Wallenberg, the determined Swedish diplomat who allegedly saved 100,000 Hungarian Jews from death in German concentration camps before he vanished behind Russian lines at the end of World War II, is probably one of the most inspiring humanitarian tales of recent history. His boldness, shrewdness, selflessness, and amazing effectiveness make for fascinating modern history -- and legend.

Gerald Green, the same man responsible for the script of ``Holocaust,'' has performed a similar function for ``Wallenberg.'' The cast, headed by TV's king of the miniseries, Richard Chamberlain, cannot be faulted. They are uniformly skillful in their portrayal of characters whose ambivalence is only hinted at but who are written as one-dimensional symbols. ``Wallenberg'' is a teleplay of heroes and villains.

Perhaps that is the black-and-white way in which the world tends to view history. And perhaps we should be grateful that Green, basing his script on a book by Frederick E. Werbell and Thurston B. Clarke, has at least hinted at complexity, at mixed motivations on the part of some of the major characters, other than Wallenberg.

But it is disappointing because Wallenberg becomes a symbol of the archetypal humanitarian -- the person we would all hope to be in crisis, one who disregards personal risk to make a stand against evil. I would have liked this film to soar, to move beyond legend and dramatic license. Instead, it just manages to drag itself along the made-for-TV pattern, repetitiously restating its premise in four hours, when one or two hours would do.

But I would mislead you if I did not also make it clear that nobody who watches ``Wallenberg'' can help but be inspired by such human saintliness in the midst of one of the most shameless periods of genocide in modern times.

The miniseries ends with Wallenberg's disppearance. What has happened to him since then is a fascinating mystery with clues turning up inside the Soviet Union every now and then. Let us hope that Paramount Television and NBC will call upon the likes of Arthur Miller to write that story for the obviously necessary sequel. A Friday Column

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