Strong women show courage under fire

Two of Hollywood's finest actresses present the most involving, strong-minded women of the summer season in gripping TV movies. Academy Award-winner Holly Hunter ("The Piano") plays a coal miner's wife who fights for her community in "Harlan County War," and Academy and Emmy Award-winner Christine Lahti ("Lieberman in Love," "Chicago Hope") plays a famous doctor, nominated for surgeon general, in "An American Daughter."

The great thing about Hunter is her ability to disappear into a role. Never mannered or excessive, she plays each character as if she had lived in her shoes, thought all her thoughts, and seen through her eyes.

Ms. Hunter has a way of projecting intelligence and strength, despite her small frame and delicate features. And she needs these qualities to play the dynamic Ruby Kincaid in Harlan County War (Sunday, June 4, Showtime, 8-9:45 p.m.). She prepared for the role by conducting her own interviews and learning the cadences of the Kentucky dialect from a wonderful lady who had gone through the strike of 1973, Hunter told a group of TV critics earlier this year.

The film explores the escalating confrontation between coal miners and company men, with wit and sensitivity to a subculture most of us know little about. Ruby and her husband and children live in a wooden shack with no indoor plumbing. Early in the film, one of the mine shafts collapses and two men are killed. Her husband narrowly escapes with his life.

The union organizer (Stellan SkarsgŒrd) arrives to help the miners' cause. Everyone in the community is tired of the way they live - the grinding poverty and the daily danger from company negligence. Month after month, the men make little headway with their strike. They are forbidden to have more than three men on the picket line by the local judge. So Ruby organizes the wives, children, and eventually the whole retired community.

Screenwriter Peter Silverman never indulges in rhetoric. The story is simple, really - it's about the hope of justice amid a corrupt status quo. And that hope resides in the individual courage of women and men working together as a community. Needless to say, TV largely ignores the Appalachian Mountains and the people who live there. And with a film this well written and involving, director Tony Bill extends our empathy to them.

Ruby finds out how tough union politics can be, but in An American Daughter (Monday, June 5, Lifetime, 9-11 p.m.), Lyssa Dent Hughes (Ms. Lahti) learns more about the game than even a senator's daughter has ever known before. She learns, in the media spotlight following her nomination as surgeon general, how readily even a worthy candidate can be undermined by bad publicity.

Privileged and well educated, the fifth-generation granddaughter of Ulysses S. Grant is publicly humiliated as an elitist because she once forgot to appear for jury duty. Meanwhile, her philandering husband flirts with an old lover, a former student who does her best to destroy Lyssa on talk shows.

It may sound like a soap opera, but this absorbing drama was written by playwright Wendy Wasserstein ("The Heidi Chronicles," "The Sisters Rosensweig") and escapes sentimentality - even when it's too clever for its own good.

There are times when it dwells overlong on the media's power to destroy, forgetting that there are checks and balances there, too. But Lahti's sterling performance is so layered and intricate, it makes us believe in the justice of her character's cause, even when the injustice of her plight seems overstated.

It's a story about courage under fire - taking up one's daily burdens with commitment and grit. And it's great to see a worthy woman character succeeding at that.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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