Billboards for this CBS miniseries blare: “Her Courage Saved A Thousand Lives.” The “her” here is Ruth Gruber, a young Jewish journalist who, working for famed Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, escorted the first Jewish refugees from Europe to America while the war was still raging. But as dramatized in a notably undramatic script, Gruber’s story seems a study less in courage than in chutzpah. What’s the difference, you ask? Courage is standing up to a guard at a concentration camp, defending the life of a child about to be incinerated. Chutzpah, on the other hand, is standing up to uptight politicians in suits and ties, risking that they might not like you. This latter event happens a lot in “Haven,” with Natasha Richardson portraying the admirable Gruber with plenty of pluck. But the real subjects of this story — the refugees themselves, get treated with a more generic, unrealistic and highly unsatisfying touch. No “Schindler’s List,” “Haven” will struggle to find a broad audience, and struggle even harder to keep it.
This two-parter begins with Gruber requesting the potentially dangerous assignment of escorting 1,000 refugees to America after President Roosevelt had broken policy to take them in. Much to the displeasure of her mother (an ever-feisty Anne Bancroft) and the concern of her adoring father (a less feisty, but no less pleasing Martin Landau), Gruber’s boss Ickes (Hal Holbrook) pushes through her request, recognizing that her journalistic experience and language skills, as well as the fact that she’s Jewish, make her the perfect candidate. So Ruth is off to Italy, where she arrives just in time to see the 982 luckily chosen candidates being boarded onto the Henry Gibbins, where they’re greeted by exceedingly unwelcome servicemen.
Shot with particular crispness by d.p. Guy Dufaux, pic is at its best on this journey home, when the refugees float by the Statue of Liberty. But hanging over this story is the sense that America never really had its arms spread wide open for these or later Jewish refugees.
From the start, it’s clear that the State Department considers them a political problem and insists that they will return to Europe as soon as the war ends. Even though some of them have family in the U.S., the entire group is confined to an Army camp in Oswego, N.Y. The first evening ends with a harrowing scene, unfortunately overdone in John Gray’s forced direction, where the refugees think they may be headed directly into a death camp similar to what many experienced in Germany.
The second half of the story involves the relationship between the refugees and the townsfolk of Oswego, who have to emerge from their prejudices to accept their guests. The over-arching dramatic question is whether the refugees will be allowed to stay. While Ruth listens attentively as the refugees reveal more and more about their horrific past experiences, the role she plays in the actual decisionmaking seems contrived even in its minimalism here. There’s probably a very interesting, dramatic tale of a political struggle going on in Washington, but this isn’t it.
Suzette Couture’s teleplay also incorporates a romantic story for Ruth, using black-and-white flashback sequences to her affair with a German man as Hitler was coming to power. It’s dull and seems a truly odd addition to the story.
The characterizations of the refugees, the servicemen on the ship and the citizens of Oswego are all drawn in black-and-white as well. Folks are either traumatized or healthy, open-minded or bigoted. Sure, people can change, but the switch is never gradual, happening instantaneously and unconvincingly. It all makes for a well-intentioned, mildly historically informative but plodding four hours.
Tech credits are strong.