The big three networks are engaged in their annual May sweeps duke-out on Sunday, May 16, with Diana Ross and Brandy in ABC’s movie musical Double Platinum pitted against CBS’ historical pageant Joan of Arc and NBC’s Atomic Train, which features a loco locomotive hauling a nuclear bomb.
Well, you can’t criticize ’em for lacking variety; quality is another matter. The stinker of the bunch is certainly Atomic Train, four hours of panicked-looking actors uttering variations on the line ”We got a runaway train with nuclear waste and chemicals headed for Denver!” Rob Lowe, playing a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, becomes — through a string of implausibilities — the only man who can prevent Denver from being reduced to ashes.
The most painful aspect of Train, however, is that it doesn’t have nearly enough plot to justify its four-hour length. The train squeals to a stop at the end of the first night — who’s going to tune in for Monday’s conclusion? Primarily, I would think, residents of Denver, represented here as folks who loot and rampage when Washington, D.C., orders the town evacuated. (In the wake of the Littleton, Colo., massacre, worried NBC execs considered changing the story’s location, a decision ultimately rejected as impossible.) A typical subplot features Esai Morales as a cop facing down members of the ”Colorado Free People’s Militia,” who’ve taken over a gas station (fuel is a prime target for looters). The scene is pointless, and violent in the most banal way. As for the acting, Lowe’s square-jawed resolve quickly becomes his primary expression; only Kristin Davis (Sex and the City), as Lowe’s wife, manages an array of emotions in this joyless Road Runner cartoon of a TV movie: Chase train, catch train, train goes boom, people go kerflooey. Denver should sue for defamation of collective character.
Joylessness increases exponentially in Double Platinum, a glum long-lost-daughter melodrama that should at the very least have been a campy treat. Diana Ross portrays Olivia King, a Diana Ross-like singing star who, early in her career, abandoned her husband (Brian Stokes Mitchell) and baby in pursuit of music-biz success. Her daughter, Kayla, played by singer and Moesha star Brandy, grows up idolizing Olivia, without ever knowing that the star is her mom. And guess what Kayla wants to be? A singer! Scriptwriter Nina Shengold brings mother and daughter together through a time-tested device — the kid wins a radio contest! Olivia arranges for the girl to record her own music, and young Kayla is suddenly hot — and thus business competition for Mom as well as a source of maternal guilt.
This could have been juicy stuff, but the pace of Double Platinum is hobbled by the big, wet ballads each woman sings. First Ross gets a number, then Brandy, then Ross, then Brandy — it must have been written into their contracts. Miss Ross, who showed so much dramatic talent in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues, is by now too mannered and guarded a performer to convey much of Olivia’s agony, which means that the bright-eyed Brandy comes off much more sympathetically. (Granted, that’s none too surprising given her mom dumped her.)
By contrast, the extravagant emotionalism of Joan of Arc is exquisitely calibrated, rendering it by far the best of these Sunday-night movies. Leelee Sobieski (Never Been Kissed) is wonderfully fervid as the 15th-century French peasant girl whose religious visions compel her to lead a revolt against the English. Unlike the skimpy stories in the night’s other movies, the tale Joan writers Ronald Parker and Michael Miller and director Christian Duguay have to tell is huge, and they tell it with flair. Duguay films Joan’s assaults on the British during the Hundred Years War with swooping camera pans unusually graceful and complex for a TV production, and the actors respond with vibrant performances. Doogie Howser, M.D.‘s Neil Patrick Harris is wittily cunning as King Charles, whose ascent to the French throne is secured by Joan’s heroics, but who betrays her once he takes power.
The 16-year-old Sobieski holds her own with two old pros: Peter O’Toole as the sarcastic bishop, Cauchon, and Shirley MacLaine as the shrewd, consumptive Madame de Beaurevoir, who tries to save Joan. (The movie falters only during the scenes of Joan’s family life, with Jacqueline Bisset and Powers Boothe as her drab parents.) The second night’s trial of Joan for heresy and her inevitable burning at the stake have all the more force because we’ve seen so much of Joan’s own fiery intensity. This is the night’s only movie that won’t leave you feeling like you’ve been burned at the stake.
Atomic Train: D
Double Platinum: D+
Joan of Arc: A