Saturday, June 21, 2014

Favorite Son

Steve Sohmer, a former motion picture and television executive with Columbia and NBC, respectively, adapted his own excellent novel FAVORITE SON for a six-hour miniseries (approximately 250 minutes plus commercials) that aired on NBC (natch) at the end of October 1988. It earned an impressive Nielsen rating and was later cut down to just under two hours for an unwatchable videocassette release titled TARGET: FAVORITE SON that loses literally more than half its original footage.

Sohmer’s sprawling teleplay is extremely faithful to the book, even using dialogue pulled straight from the pages. The plot revolves around Terry Fallon (L.A. LAW’s Harry Hamlin), a handsome, charismatic first-term U.S. Senator from Texas, who is shot and wounded on live television during an assassination attempt on Octavio Martinez, the leader of the Contras in Nicaragua. A week away from the national convention (the party is unmentioned in the book and the film), President Sam Baker (James Whitmore) is sagging in the polls and is being pushed by party leaders to dump Vice President Dan Eastman (Mitchell Ryan) from the ticket and select Fallon, the country’s new golden boy, as his running mate.

Curiously, FBI head O’Brien (Kenneth McMillan) assigns only two men to investigate the Martinez murder: crusty, cynical, three-months-from-retirement Nick Mancuso (Robert Loggia) and his rookie partner David Ross (Lance Guest). Obviously, somebody somewhere doesn’t want the case solved—a reality the self-loathing Mancuso understands from the start—but the idealistic Ross is dedicated to it. That Martinez was injected with the AIDS virus while undergoing a physical at Walter Reed two days before his death is knowledge President Baker’s two most powerful allies, Chief of Staff Lou Brenner (John Mahoney) and CIA Director William Reiker (Ronny Cox), want to keep under wraps, but the unpredictable Mancuso (whose first name was Joe in the book) threatens to thwart their plans.

At the center of every subplot is Sally Crain (CROCODILE DUNDEE’s Linda Kozlowski, so perfectly cast I wouldn’t be surprised if Sohmer wrote the character for her), formerly a journalism student, a Peace Corps volunteer in Central America, and now Fallon’s press aide and the Frankenstein who created him. She’s also his lover, despite the existence of Fallon’s invalid wife locked away in a Cleveland convent. It’s a tough role, due to the many faces Sally wears, and Kozlowski shines in what is undoubtedly the best part she ever had.

Sex, violence, betrayal, intrigue, power—the backbone of a salaciously entertaining political thriller is here. That it originally aired days before the 1988 Presidential election, which saw Dan Quayle vault into the Vice Presidency, adds some pop to the story (four years later, Quayle was almost pushed out of office before the 1992 convention, just as Dan Eastman is here).

Director Jeff Bleckner juggles the many storylines and speaking parts with great professionalism. Performances are strong with character parts perfectly tailored for the veteran actors who inhabit them. Loggia is outstanding in the miniseries’ sharpest arc. He’s such a scene-stealer that he was spun off into his own weekly series, MANCUSO, FBI, which earned him an Emmy nomination (Bleckner and FAVORITE SON cinematographer Bradford May directed episodes).

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