The lust for power is like the lust for revenge: It's hard to tell them apart.
That's the essence of two television movies airing this week, set a century apart. They concern wealthy men controlling the world from behind the scenes, either for revenge or power.
France's most famous actor, Grard Depardieu, stars in an elegant eight-hour miniseries, The Count of Monte Cristo (Bravo, June 21-24, 8-10 p.m.), and Noah Wyle plays Apple Corporation's Steve Jobs, with Anthony Michael Hall as Microsoft's Bill Gates in Pirates of Silicon Valley (TNT, June 20, 8-10 p.m.)
Both films are well-made, engaging, and boosted by good scripts and fine acting. "Monte Cristo," however, has the edge. The thoughtful and exciting entertainment would probably qualify it as one of the best television movies airing this summer.
Based on the novel by one of the greatest adventure writers of all time, Alexandre Dumas, and shot in French with English subtitles, it represents Depardieu's - and Bravo's - first foray into television movie production. And it was a bargain at $20 million with its wonderful locations recreating the Marseilles and Paris of the 19th century.
Edmond Dants, a young sea captain, is imprisoned without recourse to trial on a trumped-up charge. Those who conspired include two of his friends who want him out of the way for selfish reasons. For 18 years, Dants languishes in a dungeon before another political prisoner burrows into his cell. Before dying, the devout elderly gentleman bequeaths a huge buried treasure to Dants, who takes his place for the burial at sea.
In his daring escape, he discovers the goodness of strangers. He recovers the treasure and sets out with an Italian cook (and part-time thief) as companion to seek vengeance and, as he changes, justice. The thief also serves as Dants' conscience.
Along the way, Dants plays a good Samaritan, saving two young lives, rescuing from ruin a ship-owner who had been good to Dants's father, redeeming a sultan's daughter from slavery, sharing his wealth with the poor, and, most gratifyingly, establishing a high standard of justice in his own household. His Muslim servants are treated as part of the family.
Depardieu is generally delightful as Dants, as he was in "Cyrano De Bergerac." He uses five different disguises - with greater and lesser believability - and appears to have a lot of fun assuming different characters.
The story is marred only slightly by the conventions of the miniseries: A cliff-hanger has to be built into the end of each two-hour segment, a lot of unimportant details are stitched into the material, and the unifying theme (justice vs. revenge) has to be repeated a tad too often. This is particularly disturbing when the moral debate at the heart of the story is not entirely resolved. Though lip-service is paid to forgiveness, we see little evidence of it.
Still, the idea of justice is particularly relevant today. And "Monte Cristo" does more than usual television to sink its dramatic teeth in the issues of justice - from the corrupt judge who hypocritically condemns others to death, to the banker who has risen in the world over the suffering of others, to the cowardly general who has assumed his position after betraying others to unspeakable horror. And then to include a personal, immediate household sense of justice reveals a thought-provoking conscience behind the production.
Which is more than can be said for either of the "Pirates of Silicon Valley." Steve Jobs and Bill Gates rose to the top of the computer industry at roughly the same time, so the film toggles back and forth between their stories. Jobs was a counterculture type, Gates something of a nerd, the film asserts.
Jobs could be vicious to his employees; Gates had no remorse about lifting secrets from Apple and improving on them for Microsoft without properly crediting Apple.
The film exposes the megalomania behind the computer industry. But while it thoroughly vilifies Jobs, it barely touches on Gates's treatment of his employees.
The rise of Microsoft and Apple has directly affected every American, and so must excite our interest. But biographical films are always problematic when the subjects are still with us. It's not easy to offend the powerful. And there is something missing from this film - perhaps what it is is a heart, a moral center, or a sense of justice, a subject so well touched upon in Monte Cristo.