'Thicker Than Blood" (May 31, 8-10 p.m. on TNT) is an unfortunate title for an unconventional made-for-TV movie. It should have been called "Stand-Up Tragedy" - that is the name of the play by Bill Cain on which the movie is based. The original title, if less sensational, is more accurate, capturing the nature of the urban tragedy it concerns.
An idealistic young teacher, Griffin Byrne (Dan Futterman radiates intelligence in the role), decides to teach in an inner-city parochial school for a year. He wants to make a difference. Byrne sees at once that much of the curriculum is irrelevant to his students' lives, so he launches creatively into controversial methods that outrage his headmaster, Father Frank Larkin (played with a burning restraint by Mickey Rourke).
But Byrne does reach most of the kids. Unfortunately, one Hispanic teenager seems beyond his help - and Lee (engaging newcomer Carlo Alban) is well worth any teacher's best efforts.
Byrne blunders into Lee's family life, disregarding warnings from Larkin and setting in motion a series of events that leads to tragedy. The best tragedies, however, are meant to bring a catharsis, and we are not left at the lower depths. The final moment of the movie reveals its real meaning, which concerns consecration to the hard work of doing good, of acting wisely, of patience and wisdom in the face of overwhelming social ills. The movie ends with the words of the Gettysburg Address read aloud in the classroom - part of the standard curriculum, and used for its metaphoric resonance.
Compared with feel-good teacher movies like "Dangerous Minds," "Lean on Me," and "Stand and Deliver," "Thicker" is less optimistic, more hardheaded. But it is nevertheless idealistic.
"It was a chance for me to do a film that tried to turn on its ear all those teacher movies that romanticized the experience of going into the inner city and saving brown-skinned kids," says director Richard Pearce ("A Family Thing," "Leap of Faith").
"We so undervalue what it means to be a teacher in this time, and that mystifies me," says Pearce. "The movies all made that hard work seem easy. They mislead us into thinking that the world is really a place where just good intentions and good feelings are going to make the problem go away."
Producer David Manson explains that the central conundrum of the piece is that it isn't easy to make changes where there are interlocking social ills of such magnitude. "I think that what is necessary is to look squarely at the difficulty and complexity of the issues and then continue to push ahead," he says. "These kinds of problems have been unfolding in inner-city schools and neighborhoods for years, and it barely makes the news anymore. When it happens in a white middle-class community, all of a sudden it's news, and politicians are debating the disquieting implications of [violence against children].
"From our point of view," he continues, "use of the Gettysburg Address is a call to arms. The piece wants to be a call to arms for people - even if they make a very small gesture: attend the local PTA meeting, give a few dollars to the local homeless shelter."
Manson points out that Byrne is naively idealistic and none too wise, but is ready to stand up to the evil threatening Lee. Larkin on the other hand has the wisdom of experience and the dedication to teaching necessary to do the job, but has lost his idealism. "And both men need to find something in the center - an idealism that is tempered by knowledge and experience. These are hard lessons," he says.
Tragedy is not easy to do anymore on TV or in the movies, says Manson. "It's almost as if we have lost the understanding of the value of tragedy. You rarely see tragedy in popular entertainment anymore.
"And yet for hundreds and hundreds of years it was a staple of popular entertainment," he says. "I think the sense of catharsis (and catharsis leading to action) has value. And I think the form has value."