"UNNATURAL CAUSES," 9-11 p.m. Monday (4)(36)(39) (Illustrated on the cover)--"War's sure got a way of catching up on you, doesn't it?," a colleague at the Veterans Administration asks Maude DeVictor.
That's the central image in this new TV movie on NBC--the concept that a soldier could survive a war, only to become its victim years after the fighting stopped.
DeVictor and tens of thousands of veterans believe this is precisely what happened as a result of the U.S. government's widespread use of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange in the Vietnam War, exposing the soldiers there to toxic dioxin that only began to manifest itself in a variety of health disorders long after they were back in the United States.
"Unnatural Causes" is the story of how DeVictor, then a benefits counselor working at the VA office in Chicago, stumbled across the information in 1977 that there might be a link between Agent Orange and the disabilities of which many Vietnam veterans were complaining.
Trying to get the government to compensate these men and their families became a personal crusade, pursued against the wishes of her superiors at the VA, and she ultimately came to be called the Mother of Agent Orange for her work in making the matter a public issue.
"I work at the VA. I work for the vets," DeVictor (Alfre Woodard) explains early on.
Though unstated, and through a large leap of dramatic license, this is also in part the story of Paul Reutershan, a Vietnam veteran who founded Agent Orange Victims International and worked tirelessly before he died in 1978 to spread the story of what he felt the chemical had done to him and untold numbers of others exposed to it during the war.
DeVictor and Reutershan never met face-to-face, but in "Unnatural Causes," John Ritter plays a fictional vet with cancer who befriends and later takes up residence with DeVictor, working on a parallel course to build support for the cause and swearing her, as Reutershan did, to keep up the fight after he's gone.
Directed by Lamont Johnson and written by John Sayles, the film isn't as passionate as its real-life subjects, however, lacking as it does a clear-cut villain. The VA's reasons for trying to quash DeVictor's work are never spelled out, the Agent Orange manufacturers aren't named and the government's rationale for using the herbicide is not challenged.
"Unnatural Causes" is effective, however, in sympathetically portraying DeVictor's determined struggle to make a bureaucracy act humanely and the Ritter character's sense of betrayal by the government. Given that this is airing the night before Veterans Day, there's plenty in that to contemplate.
ON THE COVER: John Ritter and Mel Scott in "Unnatural Causes."