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A Biased Debate

November 05, 2000|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Showtime's political thriller, "The Last Debate," sets up a terrific "what if" premise: Journalists serving on a presidential debate panel throw out the rules to favor the candidate they feel should be elected. Then what happens?

In the mystery that airs Sunday--two days before the presidential election-- four journalists from print, radio and television try to change the course of American history by influencing the presidential elections.

"The Last Debate," based on PBS newscaster Jim Lehrer's acclaimed novel, was just the type of meaty project director John Badham ("Saturday Night Fever") was eager to do.

"I made a very conscious decision three years ago [that] if I didn't think a movie wasn't about something I didn't want to make it," he says. "Here is this fabulous idea of Jim Lehrer's book where you say, 'What would happen if a journalist decided to turn on the candidates? What would that be like? How would it develop? How does it relate to this phenomena of journalism and entertainment flirting so close together that it is sometimes hard to tell which is which?"'

"Last Debate's" story begins two weeks before a present-day presidential election, with polls showing a neck-to-neck race between Republican nominee Richard Meredith (Stephen Young), and Democratic nominee, Gov. Paul L. Greene (Bruce Gray). After much discussion, the two nominees have agreed to one live debate on television.

Chosen to moderate the panel is cynical political columnist Mike Howley (James Garner); his co-panelists consist of liberal African American political writer Barbara Manning (Audra McDonald), TV anchorwoman Joan Naylor (Donna Murphy) and conservative radio reporter Henry Ramirez (Marco Sanchez).

Twenty-four hours before the debate, Howley receives faxes about Meredith, who presents himself as a moral rock of virtue, alleging he not only physically abused his wife and daughter, but several other women. Though there is no time to check the truth of the allegations, the panelists decide to question Meredith about his history of physical violence. The result is chaos.

Covering the debate and its aftermath is journalist Tom Chapman (Peter Gallagher), a magazine writer looking for the real story behind the debate and the panelists' decision.

Badham finds it ironic that Lehrer, who wrote "Last Debate" in the mid-'90s, actually ended up moderating the three recent presidential debates between nominees Vice President Al Gore and Governor George W. Bush.

"What I find funny is that even a lot of the TV graphics we have in the picture which were ones that I picked in May or June--I turned on the debates and they have the same graphics! Everybody is going to say I am copying them. "

Screenwriter and producer Jon Maas, says Badham, brought Lehrer's novel up to date and attempted to make things a bit more ambiguous. "So we don't know if [Meredith] did this or not," Badham says. "Suddenly, it becomes much more of an ethical issue of how much should you go on a story you haven't had a chance to check out."

For Gallagher, late of "American Beauty," the contemporary relevance of "The Last Debate" didn't hit him until the negotiating problems of the recent Bush-Gore debates came to light in the press.

"When I got the script what appealed to me about it was the backstage drama and comedy of it," Gallagher says. "I loved learning the fact that everything is negotiated, that nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to."

During production, Gallagher kept wavering in his opinion of the journalists.

"You don't want the decision taken out of the voters' hands," Gallagher says. "It occurred to me just how sturdy, durable and valuable not only the elements of our Constitution are, but also the sort of ancillary aspects of the election process, and how dangerous it is when anybody tries to mess with them."

*

"The Last Debate" airs Sunday at 8 p.m. and Tuesday at 11 p.m. on Showtime. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

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