Picks and Pans Review: American Playhouse: Concealed Enemies
PBS (Monday, May 7, 9 p.m. ET)
OK, so there are no spaceships, flesh or gore. But there is drama galore in PBS' four-hour mini about the Alger Hiss case, a scene in American history that many people are too young to remember. Edward Hermann is Hiss, the liberal lawyer accused of being a communist in 1948. John Harkins is the accuser, Whittaker Chambers, a former communist who decides to "name names." And Peter (Local Hero) Riegert is Richard Nixon, a Congressman determined to get Hiss. As is often the case on TV, history and personality are juggled to drive the plot: Hiss comes off almost heroic, Chambers pathetic, Nixon comic. (Chambers makes Nixon uncomfortable. "I don't know what to make of this guy," Nixon wails. "He translated Bambi!") The script, according to it's author, Hugh Whitemore, writer of All Creatures Great and Small for TV and Stevie for stage and screen, was based on interviews and on documents obtained from the FBI through the Freedom of Information Act. Its story begins with Chambers' accusation and ends with a jury finding Hiss guilty of perjury (he was accused of lying to a grand jury and not of espionage, since the statute of limitations on that had passed). Hiss served 44 months in jail. Concealed Enemies, though partisan in its sympathetic portrait of Hiss, draws no conclusions except that the nation was wasted by the witch-hunting of the period. That reached a crescendo 19 days after Hiss was convicted when Sen. Joseph McCarthy declared: "I have in my hand a list of 205 names..." The acting and writing in Enemies are polished, but it is the directing and editing that turn what could have been a collection of talking heads into a compelling mystery and controversial drama. Enemies is sure to lose badly in the ratings to spaceships, flesh and gore. If you don't watch this now, look for a rerun. This is top-notch TV. (Part Two airs Tuesday, Part Three Wednesday)
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