Decoration Day starts out like the ultimate Hallmark Hall of Fame, a video greeting card designed to warm your heart. But very quickly it becomes something better than that. James Garner plays Albert Sidney Finch, a crusty old judge in the early stages of retirement in contemporary Georgia; he claims he wants to spend the rest of his life fishing, even though it’s clear he’s already bored stiff by it. The judge is relieved, then, to get involved in an odd case: A boyhood friend, played by Bill Cobbs (The Slap Maxwell Story), is refusing to accept a Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism during World War II. Cobbs’ character says he thinks the Army has taken so long to give him the medal because he’s black, and he wants no part of this plan. But the government wants to force Cobb to take the medal and sends an aggressive young lawyer (Larry Fishburne, Cowboy Curtis on Pee-wee’s Playhouse) down to Georgia to apply pressure; Garner agrees to represent his bitter friend in this dispute.
Decoration Day has a lot to say about Southern race relations and the ways of government that contrasts with the show’s pretty Georgia scenery and Garner’s charming old coot of a character. Then too, Cobbs’ long-simmering resentment is presented without softening — or liberal pieties. To be sure, there’s a lot that’s sentimental about this story, especially a subplot involving Judith Ivey as a legal secretary who falls in love with Garner. But the two are so charming together, so straightforward with each other, even their goo-goo-eyed courtship is entertaining.
Garner, unpretentious and dependable for so long as an action hero in Maverick and The Rockford Files, has made a graceful transition to gutsy-old- guy roles in TV movies like Promise, My Name Is Bill W., and now this shrewdly conceived drama. A-