Watching Witness To The Execution, I was glad that Sean Young is its primary star. Had the wobbly-careered actress (Love Crimes, Fatal Instinct) not been on hand to distract me with her loopy line readings and her what’s-a-film-star-like-me-doing-in-a-TV-movie-like-this? attitude, I might have had to take this production on its own hopelessly huffy terms. Witness to the Execution wants to say Important Things about capital punishment and media greed. To do that, however, you need a point of view, and this is something Witness never seems to have thought through.
Set in 1999, Witness offers a network-television producer’s nightmare: An amoral pay-per-view company buys the rights to broadcast the execution of a convicted murderer, played by Wings‘ Tim Daly. Cost to the viewer? Thirty dollars per home. (Right from the start, Witness is already hopelessly out of date: If Howard Stern managed to get $40 a pop for his New Year’s Eve execution of good taste, you just know that five years from now the sight of a frying convict will come with a bigger price tag.)
The person who cooked up this idea is programming chief Jessica Traynor (Young). We’re supposed to be appalled at Jessica’s cynicism in her quest for profit and power, but Young, playing her with sad eyes and an invariably defensive tone of voice, makes her more a figure of pity. Jessica works for an arrogant cable-TV tycoon who makes Ted Turner seem shy; he’s played with malicious skill by Len Cariou, who learned how to draw blood from mean characters as the demon barber of Fleet Street in Broadway’s 1979 production of Sweeney Todd.
We’re also supposed to despise the fact that Jessica looks at a number of death-row TV-star candidates before selecting Daly’s Dennis Casterline because he’s so alluringly telegenic. (Daly, who recently portrayed alluringly telegenic cult leader David Koresh in a May In the Line of Duty TV film, is turning his talent for brooding handsomely into a second career.) Along the way, we are meant to feel loathing for characters who sneer sentiments such as, ”If it’s good TV, how can it be immoral?” Indeed, Witness spends so much time sucking up to the prissy reactionary in each of us, it’s a wonder the film ever gets around to being the sensationalist TV movie it is at bottom.
So it’s a relief when Witness starts taking some twisty turns. Once Jessica looks into the murder Dennis is supposed to have committed, she begins to believe his protestations of innocence. Her long-dead conscience reawakens, and she reverses her position to argue against televising Dennis’ death. On the one hand, this leads to awful dialogue, such as when Jessica proclaims, ”Are we fighting crime or creating it?…Watching a man die — is that going to keep people from killing, or just turn them on?” Since the turn-on of watching a man die is the major hook of Witness to the Execution — the very premise that got the movie lots of early publicity when North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad condemned Witness, without seeing it, as a version of snuff TV — this seems a bit disingenuous, to say the very least.
On the other hand, there’s an assiduous vagueness about Witness that renders it fascinating. The movie never takes a position on capital punishment, and attacks the TV industry only to have Jessica prove to be a principled person after all. This wishy-washiness is epitomized by Young’s performance. In making her showbiz descent into made-for-TV films, Young holds herself stiffly, as if signaling she’d really rather not be here, yet she also can’t help but offer a more nuanced performance than your average TV-trained actor might give.
But Young is looking for aspects of her character that a cheeseball TV-movie script (by Nightmare Cafe‘s Thomas Baum) simply doesn’t contain. When the execution finally occurs — it’s shot in exactly the timid, stylized way you knew all along that it would be — it’s less of a climax than watching Young yell a line like, ”TV is the highest court in the land!” and sensing the contempt she must feel in her own conviction. B-