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HOWARD ROSENBERG

'Hostage' Indicts Superficial Media : Sunday's ABC docudrama suggests that cruel terrorist acts are an extremist's way to dramatize a grievance.

January 12, 1991|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Former hostage Jerry Levin can testify that terrorism is cruel and ugly no matter the cause.

However, it's nice to see a television drama--in this case "Held Hostage: The Sis and Jerry Levin Story"--suggesting for once that, far from occurring in a vacuum, terrorist acts are usually the extremist's way of dramatizing a grievance. The best-case scenario: Address the grievance, and perhaps the terrorism will stop. Perhaps .

In any event, it's not the terrorists themselves who articulate this in the ABC movie (which airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42) but, significantly, the Levins themselves, played by David Dukes and Marlo Thomas. And the script's indictment of the superficial way in which the news media usually cover terrorism--reporting the results while ignoring the roots--is a point well taken.

The movie's perspective--and the moving way it humanizes tragedy--make "Held Hostage" an interesting way to spend two hours. That the messages are delivered in such a preachy way is a major distraction, however, unless you like your TV stories shouted from a soapbox.

Levin had been CNN's bureau chief in chaotic, war-ravaged Beirut for only a few months when he was abducted by militant Muslim fundamentalists March 7, 1984. Living with him in Beirut had been his wife, Sis, and more than anything, "Held Hostage" is her story, juxtaposing scenes of Jerry in captivity with her determined efforts in the United States, Lebanon and Syria to win his release.

In the process, she becomes an outspoken activist, urging Americans and their government to respond to terrorists like those holding her husband with "reason and understanding," not saber rattling. As depicted here, it's her own expressions of "reason and understanding" that persuade the Syrians to intercede in Jerry's behalf and arrange for his escape 11 months after his abduction.

"Held Hostage" was filmed in Israel, ironically just as Iraq was invading Kuwait. Despite some unconvincing special effects, director Roger Young makes impressive use of his locale to create a terrifying mini-Beirut that's a war zone from border to border. Thomas, her hair dyed red and affecting a Southern accent, nicely conveys the frustration of a feisty woman who, in this account, seems angrier at the State Department's bureaucratic double-talk and her husband's employer than his captors.

You wouldn't know from this movie that Jerry Levin's employer is CNN and his boss CNN chief Ted Turner, for incredibly, neither the script by Dennis Nemec and Bruce Hart nor ABC publicity mentions CNN by name.

Nor will viewers know that the executive Sis complains about--and who rejects her plea that "the network" run a videotape that Jerry's captors forced him to make--is supposed to be Turner.

Producer Carol Polakoff said that omitting the names was dictated by "contractual as well as creative reasons." Levin "was still an employee at CNN when we put this into development, and that's all I can say about that, really," Polakoff said. "We're not trying to duck any issues, but there's an enormous controversy about who did what vis a vis the hostages. The network has one view (that it did all it could in Levin's behalf) and the Levins have another.

"To take on CNN and Ted Turner would have made this a much different movie," Polakoff added. In a CNN biography by Hank Whittemore, network executive vice president Ed Turner is described as having made a fruitless search for Levin in the Middle East for two months in 1984.

Meanwhile, "Held Hostage" never does pin down just who took Levin or precisely why, meaning that reason and understanding in this case are not applicable.

THE LEVINS SPEAK OUT

Jerry and Sis Levin give their thoughts on the movie and media coverage of kidnapings. F6

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