Showtime further burnishes its reputation as television’s boldest risk taker with this extraordinary three hour telepic/miniseries/docudrama (take your pick) about America’s reprehensible non-treatment of its disease riddled Gulf War vets. “Thanks of a Grateful Nation” is that rare television project that feels like it actually might somehow make a difference. It may also just be the pay cabler’s finest moment.
How good is “Thanks of a Grateful Nation”? So good that it gives government conspiracy movies a good name (however briefly). So good that it coaxes career making work out of “Wings” alum Steven Weber as a Bible thumping good ol’ boy struck with terminal brain cancer. So good that you barely notice the fact John Sacret Young’s powerful teleplay is glaringly one sided — perhaps because there is no other side to tell.
It’s a film that had to be made about a story that needed to be told, but it’s rare that a fact-based project winds up being this urgent and compelling. There is practically no wasted motion, despite the length.
Film reunites the “China Beach” team of Young (who also exec produces along with Tracey Alexander and Andrew Adelson), director Rod Holcomb and the exquisite Marg Helgenberger, whose magnificent performance here is merely one of several that bring heartfelt passion to the subject of the government’s apparent cover-up of troop exposure to toxic agents during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The filmmakers claim that more than 100,000 men and women have suffered from the elusive Gulf War Syndrome, which manifests itself as everything from incurable head colds to nasty, aggressive cancers, upper respiratory infections and ghastly skin rashes. Helmer Holcomb impactfully intercuts interview footage with many of those real soldiers and officers, whose symptoms and illnesses were officially denied by the Department of Defense as psychosomatic in what the film shows to be a massive cover-up.
“Thanks of a Grateful Nation” stars Ted Danson in a superior turn as Jim Tuite, a retired U.S. Secret Service agent and a Vietnam vet who is reluctantly drawn into the conspiratorial web he sees being spun around Gulf War vets being refused rightful medical treatment on the Pentagon’s dime. He takes a job with Sen. Donald Riegle (a dynamic Brian Dennehy) and slowly deduces what’s behind the deceit. The government fears multibillion dollar payouts if it admits that toxic chemicals and gasses were being sprayed all over the theater of operations. Oh yeah, and one more thing: it seems that U.S. companies sold the materials to Iraq. Oops.
Meanwhile, the human face of the dreaded syndrome emerges with blistering clarity in men like Chris Small (Matt Keeslar), who flies into the Gulf War as a strapping, gung ho young patriot and returns home a few months later as a morose, lethargic, disillusioned cynic wracked with digestive problems and respiratory ailments.
His supportive wife, Teri (a moving performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh), suffers her own physical debilitation, contracting rashes after trying on Chris’ toxin laced uniform and finding that his semen literally burns her insides when they make love. Their baby daughter, too, can’t escape the rashes.
Meanwhile, Jared Gallimore (Weber), a Waco, Texas, farm boy who takes a job aiding in the Persian Gulf mop-up effort after the war is over, is horrified to find a sickening orange silt covering dead soldiers and animal carcasses, which turns out to be uranium dust.
By the time he returns home to the loving arms of sister Jerrillyn Folz (Helgenberger), he is already afflicted with brain tumors and is soon reduced to a convulsing vegetable.
Weber is simply phenomenal here, giving a measured performance that never betrays his character’s golly gosh demeanor. A great dramatic actor appears to be born before our very eyes. And Helgenberger, a highly underrated talent, matches his every step. “Thanks of a Grateful Nation,” soars on the shoulders of the ensemble cast and Young’s brazen script that drives home its points with a sharp edge but rarely a heavy hand. He and the production team craft a movie that makes you think, makes you angry and makes you feel just a little bit ashamed to be living in an America that can do this to those who defend it.
But the pic also makes you grateful that there is a network with as much balls as Showtime.
Tech credits sparkle.