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The Wide World of Media Moguls

The Virtual

'Weapons' a Satirical, Searing Laser Beam

May 16, 1997|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

"Weapons of Mass Distraction" is much more than just fun. It launches messages like ballistic missiles.

One is that media tycoons move faster than do the TV scripts defining these stratospheric power elitists who control the destinies of all those worker ants scurrying anonymously at their custom-shod feet.

It was while Larry Gelbart was writing this zooming, racy, fiercely witty HBO satire about warring-to-the-death moguls, for example, that life began noisily imitating his art, with the nuclear rumble between corporate poo-bahs Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner exploding publicly.

And it was this week, in advance of Saturday's premiere of Gelbart's fiction about ruthless, self-serving human megatons vying for a major sports franchise, that news broke about Murdoch nearing a deal to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Another message, delivered by "Weapons of Mass Distraction" with devastating laser humor--in fact, Gelbart does to his invented corporate barons what they do to their enemies and the public--is that extreme peril lurks in the prevailing trend of concentrated ownership of media metropolises. As in the merger of Walt Disney Co. and ABC, for instance, and of Turner's own vast holdings with sprawling Time Warner Inc. (which owns HBO), to say nothing of the panoramic Murdoch, whose corporate reach in the United States alone rings 20th Century Fox, the New York Post, the Fox television network, the Fox News Channel and various other national and regional cable channels. As "Weapons of Mass Distraction" stylishly notes, this much narrowing of control can be lethal.

Gelbart was inspired in part by Italy in the mid-'90s, when then-Prime Minister Silvio Berluscioni simultaneously controlled the state TV system and owned three commercial TV stations, giving the magnate politician sway to shape programming for 90% of the nation's viewers.

In "Weapons of Mass Distraction," Lionel Powers (Gabriel Byrne) is fiscally incestuous, too, tenaciously going after a professional football franchise (the Titans) in a league where he already owns one--proclaiming, "He who controls sports, controls it all."

Yet Powers and his nemesis, Julian Messenger (Ben Kingsley), are also Murdochian in their eclectic media appetites and the enormity of their empires. Echoing the ugly personal feud between Murdoch and Turner, moreover, Powers and Messenger use their media arsenals to strike at and defame each other. And with Byrne and Kingsley playing these two as brutal but clear-thinking opportunists instead of as crazed fanatics, they're all the more persuasive.

One does assume, in a best-hope scenario, that Murdoch, Turner and other industry giants have not descended quite into the amoral, double- and triple-crossing sludge pot shared by Powers and Messenger, who bribe, blackmail, corrupt and snoop intrusively in pursuit of their selfish agenda. They relentlessly abuse their awesome power and bend their media resources to their personal interests, in effect becoming their own message.

Standing in the way of Powers acquiring the Titans are a Senate committee--which must decide (duh) if owning two teams in the same league would be a conflict of interest--and Messenger, who wants the franchise himself. The committee, including key senators as available to be strong-armed as their real-life congressional counterparts, gets pinged in the cross-fire.

As do Powers and Messenger, an odd couple inextricably paired by mutual hatred and a shared cynicism and disregard for the consequences of their dirty tricks. "Don't crap a crapper," Messenger snaps at Powers during a hastily arranged summit in the desert.

Gelbart, who is also the executive producer, retains his trademark ability to make you laugh at the small picture when you're not lamenting the big one. His evil twins have a giggly libidinous side, it turns out, with Messenger exuberantly bedding down with the amorous, pigtailed-and-pinafored host of his hit kiddie show (Heidi Mark), and Powers' ICBM potency in the boardroom belying his inability to fire in the sack.

This sexual frustration with his voluptuous second wife (Mimi Rogers) and their shared female play-kitten (Jordan Ladd) has Powers resorting to a penile implant, which is first researched by his loyal yes-man (Jeffrey Tambor). Given several exciting choices, Powers opts for a high-performing hybrid of the Big Boy and the Pump. And later, things really get kinky.

The script is spiked with numerous familiar media signposts (including a news chopper televising a hot pursuit) that become common denominators indirectly linking Powers and Messenger to the ordinary folk they care absolutely nothing about.

"A little bloodshed is always required to save the greater number of jobs," Powers remarks coldly about his telephone company's massive downsizing, whose victims include a working-class couple (Chris Mulkey and Ileana Douglas) and their two kids.

As this family's future darkens, so does the story, climaxing with some haunting, wickedly funny closing frames that epitomize everything shoddy that much of TV has become.

There may never be another work about the media as prophetic as Paddy Chayefsky's "Network." Still, "Weapons of Mass Distraction" reeks of intelligence and prickly insights, with director Steve Surjik maintaining a snappy pace that builds suspensefully toward not only an inevitable Armageddon but also to an anticipated unveiling of Powers' new penis.

All in all, you'd have to say, a real stand-up story.

* "Weapons of Mass Distraction" airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO. The network has given it a rating of TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17).

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