Taking a giant leap forward in the telepic arena, FX scores extremely high marks with “Sins of the Father.” Demanding, tense and exploding with an unflinching reality not often provided by made-fors, this true story contains terrific performances and tough dialogue. Long known as the network chockfull of reruns — “Ally McBeal” and “The Practice” repeats keep it alive — the cabler’s brass should be proud of this accomplished, important piece of work that rivals anything produced by original programming king HBO.
Based on Pamela Colloff’s Texas Monthly article, “Sins” revisits the life of Bobby Frank Cherry, one of several men indicted for the bombing of Birmingham, Ala.’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 (pic was filmed in Toronto). Director Robert Dornhelm (an Emmy nominee for last year’s “Anne Frank”) and scribe John Pielmeier take a very different p.o.v. from that of Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary “4 Little Girls.” They focus not on the victims, but on the relationship between Cherry (Richard Jenkins), who became a disturbed shut-in, and his emotionally tattered son, Tom (Tom Sizemore).
Returning home to build a house for his old man, Tom is prepared to visit the ghosts that have made him what he is today. Unable to keep a family and becoming somewhat of a drifter in middle age, he still has a soft spot for his father, who taught him the ways of the Ku Klux Klan and abused Tom’s mother (Brenda Bazinet) until she died of cancer.
The church murders were never officially solved, and FBI agent Dalton Strong (Colm Feore), who followed the case in the 1960s, reappears as a consultant, still hounding the family for answers (he even shows up at the funeral of Tom’s no-good brother, shot by cops during an escape attempt).
All Strong wants is a little help, but Tom holds firm, maintaining his father’s innocence, even though he’s starting to remember certain events that finger him as an obvious participant in the crime.
Adding to Tom’s emotional seesaw ride is his decision to befriend Garrick (Ving Rhames), a local carpenter who reads the Bible daily and is all about forgiveness, but can’t seem to get past the rumors that have engulfed Bobby for almost 40 years. Only after Tom confronts, via flashback, his own demons and the suppressed memory of physical and emotional neglect does he “see the light” and testify before a grand jury (which led to a competency hearing in December 2000).
Dornhelm has fashioned a narrative that is both entertainment — the tension is engrossing and the emotional payoffs are large — and an essential historical diary entry.
Perfs are aces all around, with both Sizemore and Jenkins showcasing genuinely pent-up hostility, rage and confusion. It’s a treat to watch Sizemore’s transformation from the dutiful son who will do anything for his dangerous father to the doubtful soul who will turn him, and Jenkins matches him scene for scene, still able to scare the wits out of his “little boy” yet somehow convincing him that he’s not such a bad guy.
Supporting players are just as sound, with Rhames solid as a balanced voice of conscience and Bazinet terrifically understated as a beaten-up and beaten-down victim whose fear is overwhelming. Newcomer Lachlan Murdoch shows an indisputable maturity that makes his role more than just a then-and-now caricature.
Victor Du Bois’ editing never tires and adds layers of conflict that is amplified by Derick Underschultz’s compelling lensing.