The politically biting, real-life thriller "Doomsday Gun," anchored by Frank Langella as a brilliant, cynical arms designer, is TV's first drama dealing with covert U.S. and British assistance to Saddam Hussein in the years leading up to the Gulf War.

The politically biting, real-life thriller “Doomsday Gun,” anchored by Frank Langella as a brilliant, cynical arms designer, is TV’s first drama dealing with covert U.S. and British assistance to Saddam Hussein in the years leading up to the Gulf War.

Writers Walter Bernstein and Lionel Chetwynd ambitiously cover a sprawling, painstaking world of assassination and intrigue and coolly eviscerate the Bush and Thatcher administrations for secretly betraying the international arms embargo during Iraq’s war with Iran.

First, however, holding all the international chicanery together is the human story, and Langella’s absorbing performance as the obsessive weapons genius, Dr. Gerald Bull, a Canadian who struck a deadly bargain with Hussein to build a supergun and, just before it was completed, was mysteriously murdered in Brussels in March 1990.

The script implies the Israelis, personified by Alan Arkin’s colorful intelligence chief, killed Bull. But he was so deep into his own arrogance, it could have been almost anybody.

As tremendous as the plot sounds, the project is ripe with land mines. The story appeals to your brain, not your heart or your gut.

The action, careening around Western Europe and the Arab world, is almost devoid of empathetic characters, with the minor exception of Bull’s endearing mistress (Francesca Annis).

The other qualification is the protagonist’s delusional love affair with weaponry. From one point of view, the sensation is something like watching a movie on Dr. Mengele. Bull had already modified Scud missiles, which would later rain down on Israel in the Gulf

War, and he had worked for the CIA and dealt arms to China, South Africa and Israel. Morals? The world’s a vast whorehouse. No one’s untainted. Seller, or, in this case, scientist, take all.

With Hussein, Bull finds his greatest test: making a megagun the length of two football fields, one bigger than ever seen before and capable of firing 1, 000 miles. But what sounds utterly like a comic book (albeit true) is rendered with unexpected impact.

British director Robert Young deftly negotiates the geography, both technological and political, bolstered by impressive production values, including the eye-catching design of the supergun on an interactive computer. And rising from its gun barrel is Langella’s fascinating, buoyant, ebullient perf.

Langella convinces you that Bull genuinely sees nothing wrong with what he’s doing.

The script, with whatever license, carefully defines Bull not as a monster but as an amoral, scientific seeker, not after money so much as a place in who’s who.

Crucially, the movie opens on Bull as a young Catholic boy dutifully sitting in Mass surreptitiously reading a Jules Verne novel about a trip to the moon. So when we come to Bull’s head sessions with his Brussels engineering staff as they struggle to design the world’s biggest gun, the scenes ring true.

At the end, a crawl states that “it is estimated that over $ 3 billion of American taxpayers’ money was secretly funneled from the U.S. to Iraq in the years before the Gulf War.”

At another point, President Bush is shown in 1992 adamantly denying undercover dealings with Iraq: “We did not enhance (Hussein’s) nuclear, biological or chemical ability. The charges are recklessly made.”

Doomsday Gun

(Sat. (23), 8-10 p.m., HBO)

Production

Filmed in London, Belgium and New York by Griffin Production in association with HBO Showcase. Executive producers, Michael Deakin, Colin Callender; producer, Adam Clapham; co-producer, Elaine Sperber; director, Robert Young; writers, Walter Bernstein, Lionel Chetwynd.

Crew

Camera, Ian Wilson; editor, Tariq Anwar; production design, Terry Ackland-Snow; music, Richard Harvey; technical adviser, Dr. Christopher Cowley.

Cast

Cast: Frank Langella, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Michael Kitchen, Francesca Annis, Tony Goldwyn, Aharon Ipale, Zia Mohyeddin, James Fox, Rupert Graves, Marianne Denicourt, Alexandra Vandernoot, Clive Owen, Murray Melvin, Roger Hammond, Georgia Reece, Richard Garnett, David Healy, Drew Schofield, Edward Highmore, Nigel Hastings.

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