Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and Michael Brandman Prods. joined with TNT in December 1989, with Steven Spielberg proposing a series of two-hour TV films focusing on the talents of stage writers, actors, directors and production professionals forming a rep company, with exec producer Brandman delivering the goods with the new TNT Screenworks stamp on them.
First of a half-dozen telefilms makes a pitch for literacy, imagination and TV’s trading up. David Mamet’s homage-laden “The Water Engine” kicks off the endeavor with flair, purpose and shrewd plotting; it’ll be intriguing to see how a Kafkan, semi-Hitchcockian, pseudo-Wellesian, proletarian, intense 128-minute drama will fare as an opening salvo.
Mamet resurrects the l934 Chicago World’s Fair as a referemce point, offering as his hero a mild drill press operator who’s invented an engine that runs on water. The era drenches the TV movie, with wary inventor Lang (William H. Macy) sharing an apartment with upbeat, blind sister Rita (Patti LuPone).
Lang contacts patent attorney Gross (John Mahoney), who turns him over to chauffeur-driven lawyer Oberman (Joe Mantegna), as malignant as the evil forces out after Alec Guinness in the 1951 “Man in the White Suit.”
Oberman, representing corrupt Big Business interests and unable to wrest the plans for the engine from Lang, begins his campaign to do away with Lang by any means — including tormenting Rita.
Director Steven Schachter goes for an arty mode of some filmmaking, with angled shots, stylized acting, Mamet’s pseudo-naturalistic dialogue, and an unswerving storyline from which subplots bloom and fade. Through it all, Martin Sheen reads a chain letter suggesting the vulnerability of non-conformity; Lang pushes on.
Production, filmed with fine attention to each episode’s style by Bryan England, looks terrif, with designer Barry Robison’s canny use of such Art Deco works as the I. Magnin building on Wilshire Blvd., Olvera St. for the arches site where Lang meets Oberman and Griffith Park for exterior zoo scenes.
Martin Hunter’s editing punches home distinct moods, and Alaric Jans’ score plus his choice of tunes are solid.
1930s Coke bottles flourish and a period juice jug appears; costumer Betty Madden’s designs reflect the period. Smokers puff (but don’t inhale) on cigarettes; Mamet drops “Have a nice day” unaccountably into the proceedings — twice.
Still, Mamet’s drama reflects its period and incorporates a Middle-European anxiety about the parallel growth of fascism in the United States during the Depression.
Following Mamet, Horton Foote, Keith Reddin and Lee Blessing are listed as upcoming writers, with two others to be announced. “The Water Engine,” first out of the barrel, is a significant debut.