Gail O’Grady delivers an enjoyable, near-perfect performance as Lt. Paula Coughlin, the Navy officer who was assaulted during the 1991 Tailhook convention and whose subsequent charges rocked the military. Pic is also worthy of perusal because it assesses the scandal’s impact on the Navy without going too far afield with moral judgments.
The aggressive Coughlin is also a stark departure for O’Grady from her role as Miss Abandando, the squad-room secretary on “NYPD Blue”; role allows her to flex her acting muscles as she heads an average, sweeps-oriented telefilm.
Though much of what happened at the annual aviator convention cannot be illustrated in this web TV setting, scripter Suzette Coture uses the outrage of the characters to communicate the egregiousness of the events.
Coture, while weaving a mostly taut dramatization — based on public records — also does a good job of mixing issues of rank, respect and equality with undertones of sexual harassment — all backdropped by the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings.
Storyline is set in motion following Coughlin’s assault in a hotel hallway where she was forced to walk a grope-and-grab gauntlet to the cheers, jeers and leers of her fellow personnel.
As if to underscore the Navy’s insensitivity and feigned ignorance of sexist stereotypes, the scribe has the secretary of the Navy touting the virtuous conduct of the rank and file during a keynote speech, while just a few floors topside the debauchery is in full swing and Coughlin is attacked. The metaphor for how superiors often turn a blind eye to the misogynous conduct of junior officers is well placed.
The setup to the events in the hallway is long in coming, however, and show gets equally bogged down later when it switches from a whodunit to a whydunit offering examination of sexist attitudes.
But strong perfs shore up the weaker moments, most notably that of Bess Armstrong, as assistant secretary of the Navy Barbara Pope, who lends an air of credibility to the more weepy segs. Hal Holbrook, as Adm. Frank Kelso, deftly represents the naval establishment.
Stephen Fanning, as one of Coughlin’s alleged attackers, keeps the dramatic element afloat flying the no-women-in-the-military flag for the Top Gun set.
Viewers also will enjoy Robert Urich, who plays against type here as the rear admirable reluctantly in charge of the investigation, a chauvinistic defender of an all-male fighting force.
Director Larry Shaw uses all the elements at his disposal to fashion an entertaining and somewhat informative telefilm, though perhaps at times overdoing the emotional level in key perfs.