Glossy, crisply edited and packed with ideas about a media run amok, “Witness to the Execution,” starring Sean Young and Tim Daly, is television’s answer to such theatrical movies as “Network” and “Broadcast News.”
It’s 1999 and a 500-channel television universe has bred such a competitive market that a floundering pay-per-view giant hits on a blockbuster idea that the whole country will watch: a live execution.
A glimpse in the near-future is ruefully established early on as Young’s leggy program exec drives through casually observing scores of muggings and assaults under way on every street corner. It’s a ripe background touch that sets up the movie’s concern with a society in which crime is more prevalent than entertainment.
Under pressure from her pay-per-view boss (Len Cariou), who has just lost a fortune airing the dismal comeback of an ex-champ returning to the ring after five years in jail, Young’s high-powered exec has a brainstorm — snuff TV.
With gargantuan proceeds dancing in everyone’s head, the pitch to prison and state authorities for rights to the first live televised execution is adorned with noble moralizing about the benefits: The justice system will remain unsullied, the state will share in the take and be able to put more cops on the street and, finally, the broadcast will serve as a great public deterrent to crime.
The movie, with a refreshing lack of any overt moralizing of its own, effectively dramatizes where the real lunacy lies.
The pay-per-view exec’s death-row choice is a photogenic killer charismatically played by Tim Daly who, it develops, may or may not be guilty of a triple murder. That question enriches a tantalizing, albeit occasionally murky , subplot involving Dee Wallace Stone (with a solid performance) as a frazzled Daly groupie and Young going soft on the killer before realizing the insanity of her ways.
The script (by Thomas Baum from a story by Baum, Keith Pierce and Priscilla Prestwidge) effectively orchestrates the multi-layered thematic material.
Director Tommy Lee Wallace (who helmed “And the Sea Will Tell,” one of the best TV movies of ’92) intelligently probes a high-tech world dominated by those 500 channels and walls of video screens.