`Promised a Miracle' one-sided. Drama targets nonmedical healing

Promised a Miracle CBS, Thursday, 9-11 p.m. Drama based on the book ``We Let Our Son Die,'' by Larry Parker. Starring Rosanna Arquette, Judge Reinhold, Tom Bower. For its first few minutes, ``Promised a Miracle'' comes off like many another TV film. Larry and ``Lucky'' Parker, with their young son Wesley and his two sisters, are sympathetic and attractive figures. Their home and community life is full of convincing human detail. And meanwhile these words have appeared on screen: ``The following is based on a true story which occurred in 1973.''

But unsuspecting viewers looking for a factually based yet neutral program are in for an unpleasant surprise. It quickly proves to be a loaded production that skillfully manipulates a tragic story to deliver this one-sided message: Reliance on nonmedical means for healing is a dangerously deluded practice with potentially fatal results.

To drive home its point, ``Promised'' presents excruciating scenes of Wes's illness and death, after he stops taking the insulin he relies on for treatment of diabetes and turns to a form of faith healing. The family feels at first that Wes has been cured. After a relapse, they continue to reject medical means - with Wes's own consent. Eventually the couple is convicted of manslaughter and placed on probation.

Although mention of a specific sect is avoided, the Parkers are followers of a generic evangelical or fundamentalist church whose members form prayer circles and recite Bible verses in unison to obtain healing. By the time ``Promised'' is over, it has implicitly extended its attack to other forms of nonmedical spiritual reliance for healing. In fact, a message is flashed on screen at the end reading: ``Unfortunately, tragedies like the Parkers' still occur.''

The program taps this topical interest in an often misrepresented subject for viewer interest. It reduces basic reasoning by its characters to clich'es, making their actions seem a conspiracy against common sense.

A range of dramatic devices is used to suggest the fateful consequences of the family's ``mistake,'' with help of a talented cast and well-paced direction. The film shrewdly weaves these warnings - step by step - into the fabric of the story.

Jobless and troubled by Wes's medical dependency, Larry, for instance, is portrayed as an easy mark when friends press him to turn to God for help. The arrival of the authorities after Wes's death is like a grim reckoning, as if reality was being reintroduced. When the law steps in, a pastor turns his back on the Parkers - message: You can't rely on such people for help.

And when Lucky finally gives up her belief, it's an explosion of repressed anguish - the emotional equivalent of withdrawal symptoms. The film is saying, ``Here's how psychologically wrenching it is when you finally return to your senses.''

Ultimately the Parkers, who seem a sincere and well-meaning couple at first, are portrayed as detached from reality, talking matter-of-factly about the resurrection they expect to occur at their son's funeral service. After Wes's death, Larry wears a beatific smile and spray-paints Wes's bike while casually remarking, ``Been promising the poor kid I'd do this for six months.''

By this time, any subtleties of purpose have been dropped. Messages are delivered through axioms placed in the dialogue. Near the end, for example, a chastened Larry says, ``We believe God heals in many ways, including medicine,'' and a bit later refers to having ``a new kind of faith. Better. Wiser.''

The format used is not strictly ``docu-drama,'' which attempts to re-create the feeling of actual documentary footage. But the film does take advantage of viewers' trust by stressing factualness of plot while remaining dramatically free to distort public perception any way it wishes. And in this case, the dramatic intent is clearly not to explore the issue with viewers, but to alarm them.

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