...first Do No Harm

NBC has been doing its hard-sell best to drum into your head that its big sweeps-period disaster movie, Asteroid, is hurtling into your home next week. By contrast, ABC is soft-selling its chief counterprogramming, …First, Do No Harm, by keeping the title in lowercase letters preceded by ellipses — ”…first do no harm” (y’know, that sort of coyness didn’t help thirtysomething, guys) — and promoting it with quiet commercials emphasizing a rare TV appearance by Meryl Streep while barely making clear just what the heck the movie is about.

There’s absolutely no mistaking what Asteroid is up to: It intends to be the TV version of last summer’s blockbuster feature films Independence Day and Twister, deploying elaborate special effects to help convince you that Earth is being pelted with thousands of red-hot shards from an exploded asteroid.

This malevolent meteor is discovered by astronomer Lily McKee, played valiantly by Annabella Sciorra (Jungle Fever, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle), who says calm, scholarly things like ”The human race would be lucky to survive!” Her findings are relayed to the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Jack Wallach, embodied by action-film pro Michael Biehn (The Terminator, The Rock). Together, Lily and Jack plan how to thwart the asteroid and clean up the inevitable mess, all the while making grim-faced goo-goo eyes at each other. (She: ”Are you scared?” He: ”Yeah, I’m scared — you’d have to be crazy not to be.”)

Asteroid is a by-the-book disaster film, using cliches from as far back as The Poseidon Adventure and the Airport movies. Scenes of massive destruction (dams collapsing, buildings bursting, fireballs rocketing through city streets) are alternated with vignettes showing us the victims and survivors of the chaos: noble doctors and firemen, wide-eyed children — there’s even a woman-gives-birth-to-baby-in-the-midst- of-disaster scene. The asteroids — peltings take place in Kansas City and Dallas — are used like the shark in Jaws: Every few minutes, there’s a shot of this unstoppable enemy advancing closer, with ominous music pulsing in the background. But since it’s tough to make an interesting villain out of a chunk of rock, the suspense quotient in Asteroid is minimal. The noise level in this movie, though, is unbelievable: The actors have to shout most of their lines over the ceaseless roar of helicopters and crashing debris. But then, when you’ve got lines like ”Is this really about the job or is this about the thrills?” who wants to hear them anyway?

…first do no harm — the title is a phrase from the physicians’ Hippocratic oath — is as subdued as Asteroid is raucous. In this fictional movie based on actual events, Streep plays Lori Reimuller, a Midwestern wife and mother whose young son, Robbie (Seth Adkins), starts having epileptic seizures. Suddenly Lori and her husband, Dave (The Right Stuff‘s Fred Ward), are plunged into a medical nightmare that includes helplessly watching Robbie undergo numerous, highly painful procedures.

At the risk of sounding cold, this is the stuff of a thousand disease-of-the-week movies, and harm follows a familiar dramatic arc, opening with happy-family scenes followed by periods of agony and dissension as the family copes with its problem, then concluding with muted optimism that things will get better. In this case, Robbie’s parents remove him from an essentially unfeeling conventional medical system and put him on the widely publicized but still controversial ketogenic diet, which holds that epilepsy can be modulated by the kind and amount of food one eats.

But for all its predictability, harm is also never less than compelling. Writer Ann Beckett and producer-director Jim Abrahams (whose hilarious Airplane!, coincidentally enough, was a parody of precisely the sort of disaster film Asteroid is) never exploit Robbie’s pain for cheap emotional effect, and the young Adkins gives a marvelous performance — neither saint nor brat, he’s just a believable boy. Streep and Ward are, as you’d expect, terrific: understated yet warm, full of righteous anger for the cosmic bad luck their son must endure. I’d be dishonest if I didn’t say that ”…first do no harm” is kinda dull. But when compared with the blasting boorishness of Asteroid, a little dullness suddenly seems like a noble virtue.
Asteroid: C-
”…first do no harm”: B

...first Do No Harm
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