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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Tv Tackles A Pair Of Toxic Topics

February 28, 1986|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Ecology and TV toxicology.

Bad news travels in pairs. ABC is offering America a grim movie about an explosion at a chemical plant that spreads toxic death to hundreds of nearby residents. Two nights later, CBS delivers a movie about the Mafia endangering millions by illegally dumping lethal toxic waste into the environment.

It's a good week to watch TV with a gas mask.

Crude, but effective, ABC's "Acceptable Risks" (9 p.m. Sunday on Channels 7, 3, 10, 42) is a sort of junior version of "The Day After," the network's noisy blockbuster that depicted the nuking of Lawrence, Kan.

Now comes the toxing of Oakbridge, a fictional small city where a giant chemical plant on the edge of town is the area's main industry and economic lifeblood. The city allows a sprawling housing development to go up beside the plant with assurances that the chemical facility will pose no danger to the residents. Predictably, though, there's trouble.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Monday March 3, 1986 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 10 Column 4 Television Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
"Acceptable Risks," the TV movie that aired on ABC Sunday night, was written by Norman Strum. A review of the film that appeared in Friday's edition of The Times incorrectly credited someone else.

Plant manager Dan Sheppard (Brian Dennehy) reluctantly pushes the plant and its employees beyond capacity to meet production demands imposed by his corporate bosses. Maintenance manager Wes Boggs (Kenneth McMillan) predicts problems. City manager Janet Framm (Cicely Tyson) is the only official who questions plant safety and criticizes its policy of not letting the city know what it makes and what chemicals it employs.

And somewhere inside the plant, there is a chemical leak.

The Union Carbide chemical disaster in Bhopal, India, is clearly the inspiration for this story, with bits of "The China Syndrome" dabbed on for good measure. Typical of message movies, "Acceptable Risks" hardly has introduced its characters before it immediately dives into the issue of safety standards and culpability. Despite Sheppard's tenuous romance with plant employee Lee Snyder (Christine Ebersole), he and the other shallow characters are subordinate to the message and exist only to throw light on the peril of major chemical accidents.

Director Rick Wallace and writer Marvin A. Gluck give more attention to switches, dials, meters, gauges and valves than to feelings and emotions. And some of the scenes are stiffly written and acted, producing a stagnancy that has you impatiently drumming your fingers in anticipation of the big blast.

When it comes, though, the body-strewn catastrophe is an impressive 10-star wallop that explodes fail-safe theories and argues against complacency. This is one of those times when tragedy becomes an eloquent statement. "It couldn't happen here," insist the citizens of Oakbridge. But it does.

Meanwhile, you'd think that "garbage wars" would describe February's battle of network programming. But instead, it's toxic turf for a dandy CBS movie called "A Deadly Business" (9 p.m. Tuesday on Channels 2 and 8).

CBS says this is "based on the true story" of Harold Kaufman, a Mafia informer whose federal testimony led to the jailing of New Jersey organized crime figures and elected officials in conjunction with illegal garbage hauling. Mafia-run companies would charge for proper disposal of hazardous waste, then dump it indiscriminately.

Harold Kaufman does exist. Where truth gives way here to the inevitable dramatic license, though, is anybody's guess. Just the same, this is a real sleeper, one of the season's niftiest dramas, tightly written by Al Ramrus, expertly directed by John Korty and energized by first-rate performances from Alan Arkin and Armand Assante. They're just excellent.

Unlike "Acceptable Risks," the environmental issue in "A Deadly Business" supports the characters instead of vice versa. This is a good, old-fashioned, no-nonsense movie, intriguing and suspenseful from start to finish.

We meet Kaufman (Arkin) as a small-time criminal being released from prison in 1972, intent on going straight. Instead, he goes to work for silky Charles Macaluso (Assante), who operates a garbage hauling business in New Jersey.

Kaufman swiftly rises as Macaluso's bag man and acquires a respectable girlfriend (Michael Learned). He tolerates skirting the edges of organized crime, but is shocked to learn the closeness of Macaluso to the Mafia. Shaken by the threats of violence he hears, Kaufman is assured by Macaluso: "That's just the way garbage men relate to one another."

Seduced by the money, Kaufman gets in deeper and deeper, and is no saint. He has pimped for the Mafia and pimped for his boss, but finally draws the line when it comes to dumping toxic waste in streams and open ditches.

"This is different," he tells the FBI. "We're talking about mass murder. Kids and old people. I want it stopped!"

"A Deadly Business" is less an issue movie than a story of one man's conversion to decency against a background of crime and violence. On a different level, though, it's another valuable TV warning about an enemy more lethal than any Mafia, a chemical enemy that may someday destroy the environment, and us, too.

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