Review: ‘Truman’

Skimming over events in the adult life of Harry S. Truman, this two-hours-plus attempt brushes over the complex, peppery 33rd president. Scripter Tim Rickman is forced to select items, to minimize or omit major elements from the Missourian's life; viewers, who'll need a scorecard for many of the characters, deserve a richer account. Give 'em heck, Harry!

Skimming over events in the adult life of Harry S. Truman, this two-hours-plus attempt brushes over the complex, peppery 33rd president. Scripter Tim Rickman is forced to select items, to minimize or omit major elements from the Missourian’s life; viewers, who’ll need a scorecard for many of the characters, deserve a richer account. Give ’em heck, Harry!

Filmed in Independence, Kansas City and Lee’s Summit, Mo., and Topeka, Kan., by Spring Creek Prods. Executive producers, Paula Weinstein, Anthea Sylbert; producer, Doro Bachrach; director, Frank Pierson; writer, Tom Rickman; based on the book by David McCullough; Program kicks off with World War I and Truman (Gary Sinise) proposing to childhood sweetheart Bess Wallace (Diana Scarwid) in her mother’s home, where they’ll live after he’s back from the service. He meets Jim Pendergast in the Army, where, as a captain, Truman wins the affection and respect of his men. Back home, Truman becomes a partner in a haberdashery and, married to Bess, meets Jim’s Uncle Tom Pendergast of the machine Pendergasts.

Pendergast, buying him a judgeship, finds he’s got a Democratic straight-shooter on his hands. But he offers Harry a U.S. Senate seat in 1934; he and Bess move to Washington, which she hates. Truman tops a committee investigating wasteful government spending, and FDR picks him in 1944, during World War II, as his running mate. His career spins along after FDR dies (Roosevelt’s interpreter declines billing, much to his credit), and familiar incidents are trotted out in somewhat different garb.

Bess and daughter Margaret ankle Washington for Independence, where it’s cooler, and Truman carries on with his cronies. In this version, military aide Harry Vaughan’s missing, but press secretary Charlie Ross (Colm Feore) is a strong presence. Truman meets with top world leaders. On stock footage. Which is just as well, since most of the impersonations are a mile off.

Bess’ trying mother, Madge Wallace (Lois Smith), continues nagging, and when Harry decides to run for president in 1948, says Dewey will win. Nothing’s mentioned of the Dixiecrat Party or Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party, which split the Democrats three ways, but of course there’s much whistle-stopping in the race to best Dewey.

Elected, Truman orders the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which he describes to the public as a military base. (He later recants, but the disclaimer isn’t shown here.) He and George Marshall (Harris Yulin), whom he enormously respects, face off in one instance. He meets with Gen. MacArthur (Daniel Von Bargen) about Korea in the back of an old Chevy. Explorations of Potsdam, the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, NATO, integrated armed forces, communism in China, Truman’s inaction on Sen. McCarthy, the State Dept., the Reds scare and other essential points slip by.

Under Frank Pierson’s scrupulous direction, some individual scenes stand out: Truman’s first words after becoming president; the Trumans’ first time in the White House family rooms, with Bess hm-hmming; his 1948 triumph; Eisenhower infuriating Truman the morning of Ike’s inauguration; Bess and Harry hitting the train station after the presidency. And overall, there’s Truman’s spirited, peppery style.

But all hands are limited by the unconscionable time limitation. Truman deserves his own miniseries: The boyhood that shaped him, his devotion to reading, his sense of honor, his post-presidential life are essential to knowing the man. And he doesn’t deserve “The Missouri Waltz,” which he loathed, played under the titles.

Sinise contributes a recognizable if not totally convincing HST, while Scarwid, as Bess Truman, known for her devotion to her husband and her sense of humor, comes off in later years as aloof and self-centered.

Marian Seldes brings a brief, gracious Eleanor Roosevelt to the occasion, and Pat Hingle’s Boss Pendergast is on target. Smith is a winner as Bess’ mother, Remak Ramsey makes an acceptable Dean Acheson, and Amelia Campbell is a charming Margaret Truman.

White House and Potsdam interiors were filmed in a private estate in Lee’s Summit, Mo.; other scenes were filmed in Independence, Topeka and Kansas City, sustaining a middle America feel, thanks to designer Stephen Marsh’s imaginative work. The Capitol segs were filmed in the Topeka State House. Paul Elliott’s camerawork is solid, Lisa Fruchtman’s editing terrif.

Truman

Production

HBO, Sat. Sept. 9, 8 p.m.

Crew

Camera, Paul Elliott; editor, Lisa Fruchtman; production designer, Stephen Marsh; art director, Gary Kosko; sound, Reinhart Stergar; music, David Mansfield.2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

With

Cast: Gary Sinise, Diana Scarwid, Richard Dysart, Colm Feore, James Gammon, Tony Goldwyn, Pat Hingle, Harris Yulin, Leo Burmester, Amelia Campbell, Virginia Capers, John Finn, Zeljko Ivanek, David Lansbury, Remak Ramsey, Marian Seldes, Lois Smith, Richard Venture, Daniel Von Bargen.
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