With a restrained score by John Frizzell to help sustain the tone, director Mark Rydell harks back to the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping case and, with William Nicholson’s abbreviated account, elicits strong perfs. It’s a mesmerizing, if distorted, look at what happened; it’ll grab viewers.
Filmed in and around Los Angeles by HBO Pictures and Astoria Prods. Executive producers, Barbara Broccoli, Amanda Schiff; producer, Mike Moder, director, Mark Rydell; writer, William Nicholson; based on the book “The Airman and the Carpenter” by Ludovic Kennedy; On the windy New Jersey evening of March 1, 1932, two men roll up to the Charles Lindberghs’ new house. One of them climbs a ladder to the baby’s window , leaves a ransom note for $ 50,000, brings a bundle out the window and, when the ladder breaks, accidentally drops the bundle. It hits a ledge with a sickening thud. The broken ladder’s left behind, as are two sets of blurry footprints.
The 18-month-old boy’s been snatched. Later, somebody suggests someone in the house must have been in on it, but who? A maid, Betty Gow, commits suicide, but not much is made of that here.
A professor, 72-year-old Dr. Condon (Bert Remsen), volunteers to act as mediator between the Lindberghs and the kidnappers. Lindbergh buys it, and Condon meets with “John” in a dark cemetery. (Actually, he met several times with John.) John swindles Condon and Lindbergh out of the ransom money.
Telepic’s centerpiece becomes Bruno Richard Hauptmann (an impressive Stephen Rea). German-born carpenter Hauptmann, a petty thief back home and here illegally, claims his friend Fisch left a shoe box with him when Fisch hotfooted it back to Germany, where he dies. Hauptmann discovers much cash in the box, and doesn’t know it’s marked money from the ransom payoff.
The country goes wild over the kidnapping of its hero’s son, and Col. Schwarzkopf (J.T. Walsh), head of the New Jersey state police (and father of future Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf) takes charge. Hauptmann’s nailed when he pays for gas: The attendant, spotting a gold certificate, turns him in.
Arrested by N.Y. police, Hauptmann’s transferred to New Jersey. Schwarzkopf and Attorney General Wilentz (David Paymer) begin pushing him. According to Nicholson’s shrewd script, politics, ambition, greed and fear enter the deliberations. While slick Wilentz prosecutes, an ineffectual Reilly (a convincing John Harkins), who had a brilliant career but is sliding downhill, works as defense. At the trial, experts under prosecutorialpressure give reports, Lindbergh testifies that he recognizes Hauptmann’s voice, others help condemn the man. But N.J. Gov. Hoffman (Michael Moriarty) has doubts about the man’s guilt.
Overall acting’s convincing, Nicholson’s dialogue is commendable, and scenes between doomed Hauptmann and his trusting, loving wife, Anna (Isabella Rossellini), are tender and memorable. Sympathy’s with Hauptmann in this telescoped, blurred version of what happened.
Rea’s Hauptmann is finely honed, suggesting something deceitful but loving. Rossellini, as Anna, glows. Paymer sleekly plays Wilentz, Remsen’s Dr. Condon (actually deeper into the case than is shown here) hits home. Walsh’s Schwarzkopf is sturdy, Allen Garfield’s bombastic N.Y. cop is appropriate, and Moriarty’s doubting governor is effective. What these people were really like is beside the point.
Production designer StephenLegler is imaginative in his choice of L.A. locations. Toyomichi Kurita’s sharp lensing and Tony Gibbs’ editing help Rydell’s pacing. Three-hour docudrama “The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case,” with Anthony Hopkins as Hauptmann, appeared on ABC in 1976; the case won’t go away.