Sweeps month means disasters galore on the webs, and few disasters can compete with the sinking of the Titanic after it struck an iceberg during its maiden voyage in 1912. There were 2,228 people onboard when the crown jewel of the White Star Line set out from Southampton, but only 705 made it to New York. The wreckage was discovered in 1985, but all attempts to raise the ocean liner have, thus far, failed. That would include “Titanic,” CBS’ lavish-looking, star-studded but hackneyed miniseries about the tragedy. It may do well with the Harlequin Romance crowd, but others will tune elsewhere long before the four hours are over.
Graduates of Foreshadowing and Portent 101, writers Ross LaManna and Joyce Eliason set up the story in and around the British seaside town, where the wealthy prepare to embark on the much-hyped trip while lesser lights who will be traveling in steerage and members of the staff and crew begin to gather.
Roger Rees, looking remarkably Hitler-like as White Star’s martinet of a managing director, assures the press that nothing could possibly ever endanger the ship, an ultra-luxe Grand Hotel of the sea. George C. Scott, playing the veteran captain making his last voyage before long-awaited retirement, concurs, adding that running a ship of such advanced design takes no effort at all.
Meanwhile, Felicity Waterman, as a nanny whom seamy circumstance placed onboard the ship, keeps being jolted out of sleep with nightmare visions of a child drowning in the sea, which understandably puts everyone on edge. Tim Curry plays a steward with larcenous dreams; Mike Doyle is his dim partner in plotting the theft of all the fabulous trinkets tucked away in the staterooms.
Society is well represented with the aging John Jacob Astor (Scott Hylands) and his beautiful young second wife, Madeleine (Janne Mortil), suffering the stares and gossip-mongering of Eva Marie Saint’s priggish doyenne, Mrs. Foley. In the tale’s chief subplot, Peter Gallagher plays Wynn Park, who’s booked passage solely to pursue lovely Isabella Paradine (Catherine Zeta Jones), who broke his heart years ago and married someone else. Over the course of a too-slow tango she realizes the error of herways, and very soon Mrs. Foley’s tongue-flapping sanctimony is being stretched way beyond the limit by their scandalous actions.
Then there’s Marilu Henner, enjoyably over the top as the brassy, gauche and ultimately unsinkable Molly Brown, the Denver millionaire’s wife who shows heroic fortitude in the face of death. Scott brings some richness of character to a smallish role, and Henner, though no Tammy Grimes, still uses her voice like a foghorn to cut through the doldrums — she’s literally a hoot.
Coupla big problems: Titanic meets iceberg a few minutes before the end of part one, leaving two-plus hours to resolve what is mostly already known. And notwithstanding American Zoetrope’s participation as co-producer, nothing allays one’s suspicion that those fearsome roiling-dark-sea scenes were shot in a bathtub.
Robert Lieberman’s direction maintains what tension can be extracted from such banalities. Christiaan Wagener’s design is eye-filling, and there’s some nicely reflective underscoring from Clint Eastwood regular, composer Lennie Niehaus. A Titanic musical is in the works for Broadway this season, and James Cameron’s $ 100 million-plus “Titanic” will hit the bigscreen next year, so perhaps there’s something in the air. What could it be?