It's sure not football season anymore. In the time period that houses "NFL Monday Night Football," ABC has skedded this movie about abortion. No one can say programming chief Jamie Tarses lacks guts. First Ellen Morgan comes out of the closet, and now the pro-life/pro-choice debate gets dusted off and aired out --- in broadcast primetime.

It’s sure not football season anymore. In the time period that houses “NFL Monday Night Football,” ABC has skedded this movie about abortion. No one can say programming chief Jamie Tarses lacks guts. First Ellen Morgan comes out of the closet, and now the pro-life/pro-choice debate gets dusted off and aired out — in broadcast primetime. Bravo!

In an era of lily-livered advertisers, V-chips and content paranoia, the risk inherent in running a film that courts this kind of controversy can’t be minimized. That alone is worthy of admiration.And so is the telepic itself, thanks to a stellar cast. When you have talent like Andy Garcia (in his first network made-for), James Whitmore, Robert Prosky, Harry Belafonte, Ray Walston, Kate Nelligan and Margaret Colin, you’ve got to really screw up the script to fall on your face. But that’s nearly what scribes Ron Bass and Jean Rusconi wind up doing. Their teleplay is literate, sensitively wrought and painstakingly balanced; the problem is that practically everything that exits someone’s lips sounds like a speech. Rather than be content to draft believable dialogue exchanges, Bass and Rusconi have decided to transform “Swing Vote” into a series of heavy-handed sermons punctuated by maudlin musical interludes. The unsubtle message, evidently, is that we don’t just discuss abortion in this country; we wear it like a loud tie.

Sometimes, helmer David Anspaugh gets so carried away with the passion of the issue that he has sound editors Marla McGuire and Jim Yant crank Harry Gregson-Williams’ poignant soundtrack so high it actually drowns out the dialogue on at least two occasions. You can tell that exec producers Jerry Bruckheimer (making his second pic for ABC) and Robert Fried felt this wasn’t just a movie, but a mission.To everyone’s credit, however, both sides of the abortion mess are likely to be unsatisfied by “Swing Vote,” but possibly this displeasure actually speaks to the film’s profound lack of bias. It is neither discernibly pro-choice nor anti-abortion but, invariably, pro-child. This isn’t nearly as much of a cop-out as it sounds.

Garcia, turning in an exceptional performance, portrays Supreme Court Justice Joseph Kirkland, who has just been appointed to replace an ailing jurist on the eve of a historic vote challenging the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade. Yes, overturning. In this scenario, abortion has been handed back to the states to determine their own laws.An Alabaman named Virginia Mapes (LisaGay Hamilton) has taken her case to the Supreme Court after being convicted of murder. Virginia has ruled that the aborting of an unborn fetus constitutes first-degree murder, and she’s fighting to stay out of a lifetime prison sentence.

This punishment may sound implausible, but “Swing Vote” pulls off this particular conceit nicely, as it does the notion that a guy who looks like Andy Garcia could be a Supreme Court justice and have the swing vote in deciding such an issue.The film gets too wordy and repetitive as everyone surrounding Kirkland tries to influence him with stern lectures, from his moody wife (Margaret Colin) to his inappropriately opinionated secretary to the flip-flopping justices in his midst. The speechmakers grow so overbearing it’s a wonder Kirkland doesn’t exercise his own pro-choice rights by strangling them all.

Giving Kirkland an adopted daughter who was once nearly aborted herself is likewise a tad too conveniently ironic to hold water here, particularly when her birth mother just happens to drop by to meet the 7-year-old for the first time the night before the big opinion comes down.

As cloying as “Swing Vote” sometimes is, however, it’s great to see old pros like Prosky (terrific as the chief justice), Whitmore and Walston doing their thing. Now, those guys look like they belong on the Supreme Court. Garcia would seemingly appear more at home on “The Sopranos,” but he’s so charismatic he could probably play a Teletubby and pull it off with style.Tech credits are sharp, save for the few overloud musical passages.

Swing Vote

ABC, Mon. April 19, 9 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Los Angeles by Jerry Bruckheimer Films in association with Columbia TriStar TV. Executive producers, Jerry Bruckheimer, Robert Fried; co-executive producer, Andy Garcia; producers, ChadOman, Jonathan Littman, Richard Brams; director, David Anspaugh; writers, Ron Bass, Jean Rusconi.

Crew

Camera, Johnny E. Jensen; production designer, Linda Burton; editor, Christopher Cibelli; sound, Marla McGuire, Jim Yant; music, Harry Gregson-Williams; casting, Amanda Mackey Johnson, Cathy Sandrich. 120 MINS.Justice Joseph Michael

Cast

Kirkland.....Andy Garcia Justice Will Dunn.....Harry Belafonte Chief Justice.....Robert Prosky Justice Clore Cawley.....Ray Walston Justice Daniel Morrissey.....James Whitmore Justice Sara Marie Brandwynne.....Kate Nelligan Justice Harlan Greene.....Milo O'Shea Justice Hank Banks.....Albert Hall Justice Eli MacCorckle.....Bob Balaban Justice Benjamin "Rip" Ripley.....John Aylward Virginia Mapes.....LisaGay Hamilton Linda Kirkland.....Margaret Colin
With: Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Tracey Ellis, Michael O'Keefe, Hedy Burress, Joe Drago.

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