All five nominees for scribing a miniseries or telefilm delve into real-life notables’ intensely private worlds, in order to shed light on their highly public accomplishments.
As such they could be said to exemplify the “HBO formula,” and in fact the current slate represents a clean sweep in 2010 for the pay cabler, whose past trophies in this category include “The Gathering Storm” (Churchill) and “Conspiracy” (Hitler and company), as well as “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers” and “John Adams.”
As Brian Lowry of Variety pointed out in his consideration of nominee “Temple Grandin,” HBO’s “longform occupies a realm that embraces movie stars, serious subject matter and big historical material … where feature distributors fear to tread, and basic cablers Hallmark and Lifetime can’t afford to go.”
This year’s nominated scribes charge boldly into their subjects’ minds. “Grandin” manipulates imagery to convey the animal husbandry expert’s autism and technical expertise, her ability to “see” complex constructions evoked by ingeniously animated blueprints.
“The Pacific” ventures far from the battlefield to explore what makes its central Marines tick: John Basilone’s tender, whirlwind courtship Stateside in part eight, and Eugene Sledge’s torturous mental rehab back home in Alabama in the final installment.
“The Special Relationship” contrasts the physical gap separating the Clintons as Bill confesses the Lewinsky mess, with the invasion of Tony Blair’s bath by flirtatious spouse Cherie. What makes each of these relationships “special” requires no words.
Yet none of the biopics presumes to fully nail its protagonist. “You Don’t Know Jack” reveals the reasoned arguments underlying Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s peculiar public style. Yet when pressed on why he crusades for physician-assisted suicide, “Doctor Death” resists opening up. A part of him will always remain closed off — ditto the sources of Sledge’s grief, Grandin’s genius, Basilone’s heroics and the chief executives’ policy choices.
All five teleplays ensure we know much more than jack about their subjects, while never for a moment suggesting we now know it all.
Robert Schenkkan, Michelle Ashford
“The Pacific” (Part 8)
Emmy pedigree: First nom for both.
Best scene: Medal of Honor winner John Basilone (Jon Seda) rips a Camp Pendleton recruit a new one when the kid jokingly disrespects the enemy.
Why it might win: Emotional powerhouse of an episode, with men and femmes alike weeping copiously as the series’ most endearing character falls in love and marries, only to fall seven months later on Iwo Jima.
Maybe not: Competition from within. Part 10 — which ties up all the mega-mini’s loose ends — might better stand in for the whole.
Bruce C. M c Kenna, Robert Schenkkan
“The Pacific” (Part 10)
Emmy pedigree: McKenna was nommed for “Band of Brothers,” Spielberg and Hanks’ European-theater precursor.
Best scene: After serving as our steely, stoic eyes and ears on Peleliu and Okinawa, Cpl. Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello) finally breaks down during a family farm hunting trip.
Why it might win: A vote for the final episode pays tribute to the vets for whom V-J Day was merely prologue to their ultimate battle: shaking off four years of hell.
Maybe not: Could be underestimated as a “Best Years of Our Lives” retread.
“The Special Relationship”
Emmy pedigree: Nommed once, for “Longford.”
Best scene: An incensed Clinton (Dennis Quaid) berates Michael Sheen’s Blair for going over his head in a P.R. tour to whip up support for a Kosovo ground offensive.
Why it might win: “The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon,” “The Last King of Scotland”: Morgan keeps winning awards for other people. He’s due.
Maybe not: Morgan’s evident ambivalence about Blair — principled opponent of genocide, or advocate of removing dictators as a “Christian duty” — could perturb voters wondering what point of view the pic is espousing.
Christopher Monger, William Merritt Johnson
Emmy pedigree: First nom for both.
Best scene: A new college roommate walks in horrified to see Temple (Claire Danes) ensconced in a self-built “squeeze machine,” the calming device inspired by cattle restraints and foretelling later breakthroughs in humane treatment.
Why it might win: Pic’s tolerance theme — “different but not less” — and triumph over prejudice contribute to the robust national conversation on autism.
Maybe not: The bravura use of camera and sound to convey Grandin’s “thinking in pictures” could come across as a largely directorial coup. Also, if Danes cops actress honors, the voters may decide their duty to “Temple” is done.
“You Don’t Know Jack”
Emmy pedigree: First nom.
Best scene: Peering through the glass of a hospital room door, Dr. Kevorkian (Al Pacino) observes an elderly patient, wraith-like, staring back in mute, pleading agony — and a mission is born.
Why it might win: The script pushes the envelope, while making an eloquent case for the common sense of physician-assisted suicide.
Maybe not: The Academy can honor Pacino and then spread the wealth.
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