Good intentions stand front and center in NBC’s “War Stories,” a pilot-turned-telepic that documents the integral games journalists play while covering global crises. From reality dreck like “Boot Camp” to yappy cable talkshow roundtables, the New World Order has become overbaked topic No. 1, so kudos to this well-meaning but oddly paced project that comes across mostly as purposeful, not exploitive.
“War Stories” originally was skedded as a series, but the Peacock passed — kind of. Not in love with the idea of spotlighting combat week after week, network brass thought the timing of its intended subject matter might make for an appropriate telepic. The result, as expected, is a sometimes disjointed two hours that doesn’t quite wrap up all of its ends but still has enough significance on its own.
The media have descended upon Uzbekistan, where civil unrest has broken out between the repressive government and Islamic fundamentalists. The “beat” players on call include Ben Dansmore (Jeff Goldblum), a cocky Baltimore Sun correspondent who can’t shake the death of his partner; Nora Stone (Lake Bell), a raw photog whose sister was killed in the Twin Tower attacks; promiscuous and ambitious newsmag staffer Gayle Phelan (Louise Lombard); and self-absorbed anchorman Ian Rhys (Jeffrey Nordling).
Ben and Nora’s first assignment as a team is the U.S. bombing of a refugee camp. At first coming up with nothing out of the ordinary, Nora is prodded into looking closer at the shots, only to discover enemy tanks hidden only a few miles away. Believing the U.S. bombed the innocents on purpose in order to destroy the opponent altogether, they trot out their findings to skeptical officials; they’re also taken by force to sit down with an Al Qaeda leader who is impressed with their lack of bias.
Cast is “War Stories’ ” strong suit; Goldblum, probably not by accident, resembles executed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and his egotism clearly gets in the way on more than one occasion. He portrays Ben as a brash narcissist who competes until he alienates, but he’s able to monitor professional courtesy and contrition. Bell does a fine job with Nora, but the character’s traits seem awfully uneven. A supposedly world-class photog, she’s immature during life-threatening moments and more needy than someone who travels the planet in search of truth really would be. Wisely, Nordling and Lombard are effectively understated as smug scoop-chasers.
That’s clearly how the creatives behind the camera see all of these people. Scribe Peter Noah’s dialogue is full of sarcasm and overt references to “winning,” while helmer Bob Singer puts nobody in a flattering light; they’re all too busy running scared, sleeping around or pissing off the locals. However, “War Stories” is best when it showcases journalism behind the scenes. The politics, the judgment calls, the deadlines, the at-a-distance friendships and the rush everyone experiences from the big “get” are much more intriguing than the actual interviews.
Despite the authenticity show seeks, the “War Stories” filmmakers haven’t gone very far to capture it. Filmed in and around Los Angeles, several passages are unspecial, considering the source material. Of all the TV ventures suitable for runaway production, this should have been a no-brainer.