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TV REVIEW

'Inside' a Powerful Tale of South Africa

August 24, 1996|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The tempest of violence that accompanied the process of liberation in South Africa in the '80s is the backdrop for Showtime's "Inside," a harrowing inside look at the stratagems of a repressive police state.

Most of the story takes place inside a government prison, where Marty Strydom (played by Eric Stoltz), a young, white university professor, has been accused of treason. Questioned regularly by Col. Kruger (in a chilling portrayal by Nigel Hawthorne), and tortured and beaten by Kruger's aides, Marty's initially obdurate will to survive is gradually corrupted.

Ten years later, the apartheid regime of the '80s has been replaced and roles have been reversed. Kruger is now being examined by a black Interrogator--passionately interpreted by Louis Gossett Jr.--in an effort to determine the facts about Marty and the many other prisoners who were similarly persecuted.

Director Arthur Penn, in a rare television assignment, has narrowed the focus of the story to critical mass, with the in-your- face Strydom and Kruger confrontations at the flash point of the action.

Alternating as counterpoint to the interrogation scenes are series of gripping contacts between prisoners. With just a small, circular peephole in each cell door, the detainees can only communicate by peering through the aperture. Penn creates tremendous tension by filming exchanges in which the only visual connection between them is a starkly staring eye or an intently listening ear. It is a startlingly powerful technique, especially effective for the small screen.

Bima Stagg's script is brilliant in the complexity of issues raised in the dialogue between Strydom and Kruger, and the Interrogator (he is never named) and Kruger. But the introductory theme--which appears to stress the ambiguities and conundrums of power, regardless of who is exercising it--becomes more single-minded as the action continues, and Kruger emerges as a specific villain rather than a symbol for the intricate, painful dilemmas surrounding major social change.

The momentum of the plot is further complicated by sudden shifts of time that are at first confusing, later distracting. And when the most crucial shift occurs near the climax--obviously in an attempt to establish the greatest dramatic impact--the story's believability, its pivotal asset, is undermined.

These carps aside, however, "Inside" is well worth watching on several counts: the power of the fervent, conflicting arguments posed by Kruger and the Interrogator; and the opportunity to view Penn's superb directorial instincts, distilled--but never diminished--for the medium of television.

* "Inside" airs on Showtime Sunday at 8 p.m.

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