Judged by its plot descriptions, this week’s new made-for-television movie would seem ripe for either piousness or exploitation. Taking Back My Life is the story of how one woman survived the emotional trauma of a rape. But rather than simplify the issues it raise or reduce its themes to soothing psychobabble or moral lessons, this movie does its best to draw you in with simple realism, which allows for complication, ambivalence, and other good things.
But Taking Back My Life isn’t as satisfying for a simple reason: the drama of Taking Back is constrained by its based-on-a-true-story scenario. The star of Taking Back is, as it happens, director Ken Olin’s real-life wife and thirtysomething graduate, Patricia Wettig. She portrays Nancy Zie-genmeyer, an Iowa woman who allowed her real name to be used in a series of stories in the Des Moines Register about her 1988 rape. In doing so, Ziegenmeyer became something of a spokeswoman for the idea that rape victims should have the option of coming forward publically, as a way of removing any social stigma attached to their plight.
The best thing about Taking Back is its depiction of Ziegenmeyer’s troubled lower-middle-class background — her tedious work as a waitress in a bar; her marriage, divorce, and rocky reconciliation with her mechanic husband, Steven (Crime Story‘s Stephen Lang). Wettig portrays Ziegenmeyer as tough, sarcastic, uneducated but shrewd — nothing at all like the wise, vulnerable Nancy she played on thirtysomething.
Director Harry Winer has filmed Ziegenmeyer’s rape with terrifying vividness, but screenwriter April Smith (Lou Grant) is obliged to follow the facts of the case, and these don’t make for great drama. Much is made of the fact that the trial of Ziegenmeyer’s accused rapist (he’s played by Eric Ware) was postponed a number of times, which was obviously very frustrating for Nancy, but which also doesn’t allow for swift storytelling.And Steven Ziegenmeyer isn’t, apparently, much of a talker, which leads to many scenes of long, ruminative silences punctuated by Nancy saying, ”I can’t stand your silences.”
There’s also an awkward shift in the movie’s direction when Ziegenmeyer turns her story over to the Register, and editor Geneva Overholser (Joanna Cassidy) crusades to get the rape victim’s story told in a frank, unsensationalistic way. The sudden switch in focus results in a lurching pace that isn’t helped by noble but speechifying dialogue such as, ”When we can start talking about rape as easily as we can our hemlines, then we can start lifting the burden of shame.”
Fact-based dramas appeal to viewers who don’t want to feel manipulated by the twists of fiction — they want to know what ”really happened.” This week, however, the complex, conflicting emotions of real life seem more compelling in the made-up drama of Maple Drive. B-