By Ken Tucker
Updated May 29, 1992 at 04:00 AM EDT

Based on a real-life tragedy, Afterburn tells the story of Air Force Capt. Ted Harduvel (City of Hope’s Vincent Spano), who flew an F-16 fighter jet on a routine training mission in Korea in 1982. Harduvel, a top-ranked pilot, crashed into the side of a mountain and died. The Air Force ascribed Harduvel’s accident to ”pilot error,” but his wife, Janet, played by Laura Dern (Rambling Rose), didn’t believe that. She felt something had to be wrong with the plane, not her late husband’s skills, and she set out, virtually alone, to prove that there was a flaw in the jet’s construction.

Because its plot comes down to a dry, complicated court case against the plane’s manufacturer, General Dynamics, Afterburn, written by Elizabeth Chandler (Renegades), does everything it can to pump drama and emotion into the story. At first, this TV movie overdoes it. The opening credits feature lots of fighter-pilot razzle-dazzle, as Harduvel and his Air Force chums swoop and dive against a deep blue sky. Jolting music, courtesy of former Police man Stewart Copeland, swells on the soundtrack, but not before we hear Dern’s voice as Janet, telling us fervently, ”This is the story of a cover-up. This is a story of power and betrayal. This is one for all of us.” This is a bit much. Screenwriter Chandler is sketching a huffy, one-woman-against-the-system melodrama — Top Gun Meets Norma Rae — with such broad strokes that you might feel like switching it off before the opening credits end.

But after that excessive beginning, Afterburn only gets better, tougher, more precise. In the early scenes, Dern and Spano’s Janet and Ted make a great couple. He’s a happily straight-arrow guy who loves studying flight manuals whenever he’s not busy loving his wife: Ted gazes at Janet and the F-16 with equal degrees of gaga. And at first, it looks as if Dern has accepted another ”Laura Dern looks great in a halter top” role, in the stirring tradition of Smooth Talk, Wild at Heart, and Rambling Rose. Dern’s Janet is a sassy waitress who favors short-shorts and high-heeled wedgies and says she likes to ”hang out with the guys, get blasted, and talk about jets.” This is the sort of movie whose idea of romantic byplay consists of Ted taking Janet for a ride in his plane and asking, ”How does it feel to have 14,000 pounds of thrust between your legs?”

But Dern is so serenely skilled an actress that after Ted’s death early in the movie, she makes Janet’s transition to grieving avenger seem smooth and logical. Dern plays up the sharp intelligence that was always behind Janet’s good-ol’-gal playfulness, and pretty soon we see Janet using her halter top with righteous deviousness to charm Air Force officials into giving her classified documents that will help prove her case against General Dynamics. She hires a crusty lawyer played by Robert Loggia (Jagged Edge), but he’s window dressing in a three-piece suit. Director Robert Markowitz (Decoration Day) rightly keeps our attention fixed on Janet, as she grows more determined to expose what she perceives as a cover-up by both the company and the government. ”Afterburn,” we are told, is a term for the extra rush of velocity a pilot can get by releasing a lot of extra fuel while accelerating. The term becomes a metaphor for the energy and anger Janet feels as she attempts to clear her husband’s name in Air Force records of his crash.

The Harduvel case concludes on the note of triumph that Afterburn‘s opening credits lead us to suspect, and it’s something of a cheat. Without giving away too much of the climax, I’ll say that some of Janet’s victory in 1987 was undercut by an appeals court ruling two years later, which is noted only in a written postscript at the end of the film. While we can have nothing but respect for the bravery of both Ted and Janet Harduvel, Afterburn is basically just another up-from-adversity TV movie. But this one is redeemed by the complex performances of Spano and, especially, Dern — they give Afterburn the emotional weight its real-life subjects deserve. B