This story of a pilot's widow struggling to vindicate her husband's reputation and to expose the lethal design flaws of the jet fighter in which he was killed has a dramatic pace keyed more to Kitty Hawk than to a Top Gun school. Some wrenchingly effective scenes manage to elevate this telepic a few notches above the conventional "based on fact" telefilm of aggrieved citizens fighting the agents of corporate greed and callous government.

This story of a pilot’s widow struggling to vindicate her husband’s reputation and to expose the lethal design flaws of the jet fighter in which he was killed has a dramatic pace keyed more to Kitty Hawk than to a Top Gun school. Some wrenchingly effective scenes manage to elevate this telepic a few notches above the conventional “based on fact” telefilm of aggrieved citizens fighting the agents of corporate greed and callous government.

The first half of this drama establishes Ted Harduvel (Vincent Spano) as a dedicated, skilled fighter pilot and his wife, Janet (Laura Dern), as an edgy, slightly rebellious young woman who rebuffed the cliquish community of pilots and wives on the insular Air Force base where they were stationed.

Nearly halfway through the film, Ted craters his General Dynamics F-16 into a Korean mountainside. The Air Force attributes the crash to “pilot error,” but Janet refuses to accept that explanation.

She initiates an imaginative and dedicated campaign to redeem her husband’s reputation and lay blame for this and similar crashes on a faulty design and a cruel cover-up.

Given the liberties permitted under the “based on fact” license, it is hard to tell here which facts are on or off the “base.” But Mrs. Harduvel did succeed in erasing the “stain” of pilot error from the official record, though her other goals are still embroiled in the churn of liability litigation.

Dern creates a strong, nuanced individual who is at times highly admirable and sympathetic, though at other times annoyingly abrasive.

The transition from widow to fiery crusader is jarringly abrupt, and the film grows sluggish and remote as it enters the realm of evidence-gathering and lawyering.

Janet is also diminished by dramatic setups that leave the military (and by extension that omnipresent whipping boy, the military-industrial complex) as a far too easy, too simplistic target. For instance:

Commanding officer’s wife trying to placate Janet: “You’re an Air Force wife.”

Janet: “No, I’m an Air Force widow.”

Officer to Janet: “Even in times of peace, there’s always going to be an … acceptable number of (pilot) losses.”

Janet: “I’m sorry, Colonel, my loss is not acceptable.”

Enough, enough–we’ve gotten the point. Director Robert Markowitz, however, is very adroit at conveying, in subtle ways, a great deal of definition about his characters and their situations. And the staging of the F-16 crash by visual-effects expert Sam Nicholson is breathtakingly real.

Ultimately, and most damaging, there is no cliffhanger here. As defined, the villainous forces are so heavy-handed, so culpable, that one knows Janet will find the smoking gun. She will repudiate the military-industrial cabal, and Ted’s memory will be properly preserved.

This would have been a better film if the enemy had some credible personification, other than bumbling officers and sleazy lawyers.

Afterburn

(Sat. (30), 8-9:30 p.m., HBO)

Production

Filmed in Los Angeles by the Steve Tisch Co. Exec producer, Steve Tisch; producer, Paul Kurta; co-producer-writer, Elizabeth Chandler; director, Robert Markowitz.

Crew

Camera, Isidore Mankofsky; editor, Jerrold L. Ludwig; music, Stewart Copeland; production designer, Donald Light-Harris.

Cast

Cast: Laura Dern, Robert Loggia, Vincent Spano, Michael Rooker, Welker White, Richard Jenkins, Andy Romano, Basil Wallace, Gary Basaraba, Dion Anderson, Kasi Lemmons, Daniel Benzali, Cassy Friel, Christopher John Fields, Lewis Dix Jr., Matthew Posey, David Warshofsky, Stephen Burleigh, Paul Perri, Ron Frazier, Pierre Epstein, Richard Fancy, Walter Addison, Peter Jason, Robert Balderson, Richard Cicetti, Ryan Cutrona, John Fountain, Marjorie Harris, Todd Jeffries, Jeffrey King, Kenton R. Lietzau, T.R. Marino, Michael Monks, Dr. John I. Moseley , Randal K. Quan, Jane Marla Robbins, Janet Sciales.
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