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Jose Mercury News
IN: A NEW NEWSPAPER HERO. GET ME REWRITE
By: Ron Miller
THE GREAT PRETENDER: Sunday at 9 p.m., Chs. 3, 4, 8
IF YOU can imagine ace reporter Carl ("All the President's Men") Bernstein with a face transplant from NBC's Arthur ("Scud Stud") Kent, you pretty much have a handle on Earl Brattigan, the hero of NBC's Sunday movie, "The Great Pretender."
Brattigan (Bruce Greenwood) is a Pulitzer-winning columnist for the Post Ledger, a major metropolitan daily in (I guess) Los Angeles, although he has been suspended without pay for a couple of months when we first meet him.
That's because he wrote something -- under city desk orders, mind you -- that got his publisher (Donald Moffat) in a heap of trouble.
As gonzo journalist Wilson Leer (Gregg Henry), Brattigan's mentor and the movie's narrator, says: "Sometimes writing is like illicit sex -- it feels good while you're doing it, but the repercussions can ruin you."
Like most journalists in TV dramas, Brattigan isn't too concerned with repercussions -- even after he wins his job back, with retroactive pay, from a publisher who's as happy to see him back as Tojo was to see Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
The publisher does have a little surprise for Brattigan, despite the applause from the staff when Brattigan returns to the newsroom. You see, the court papers said he had to give Brattigan back "a" column, not "the" column.
"And have I got a column for you!" says the publisher.
His new assignment: Write a regular column based on the contents of the paper's "dead" file, the stories that didn't make it into print. And he gets to write it from his new desk -- located in the paper's basement garage area.
Oh, yes, his byline will, from now on, appear as "Dead End" Brattigan.
Why don't we pause right here and play like we're in an Ellery Queen mystery: Will this awful assignment be the end of Brattigan, or will he find something, immediately, in the dead file which will jump-start his career and put him back in the publisher's good graces again?
Hey, you guessed right: Brattigan finds an obit for a guy he interviewed last year, an electrical wizard who died from accidentally placing the ends of two hot power lines against his chest. Now any fool knows an electrical genius ain't gonna have that kind of accident. This calls for a little investigative reporting.
Actually, we knew about this already, because we saw the Mafia electrocute the genius in the teaser before the movie's opening credits.
But it's still fun watching Brattigan track down the truth. First, of course, he goes to the journalism intern who wrote the unpublished obit to find out what she knows. She turns out to be this foxy person named Kate Hightower (Jessica Steen), who can't stand Brattigan and, in fact, even wrote her master's thesis on the journalistic malaise he represents.
I had decided not to point out the journalistic absurdities of this movie, but I can't resist telling you where Brattigan finds the "obit" writer: naturally, at a funeral home, taking notes over an open casket!
Anyway, intern Hightower is soon tagging along with Brattigan as he investigates "her" story further and is with him when he discovers Japanese survey crews crawling all over the abandoned power station in the desert where the genius met his high-voltage end. She is also with him when the Mafia enforcers surface with guns from behind a sand dune.
"Why aren't you running?" she asks.
"I don't run," he says. "I talk."
Which unveils another of Brattigan's 18 rules of good journalism:
Never run away from a story when you can simply make up a load of bull,
sprinkled with lies, and avoid having to identify yourself as a journalist.
"Isn't it great!" says Brattigan, who urges her to simply enjoy the rush.
By now, you've probably deduced "The Great Pretender" plays more like a weekly series than a movie. That's because it was filmed by producer Stephen J. Cannell, who also wrote it, as a "back-door pilot" for a weekly series called "Dead End Brattigan." It has been on NBC's shelf for quite awhile because Greenwood had already filmed it when I talked to him a year ago during production of ABC's "Beach Boys" movie.
Still, it may have a remote chance of actually becoming a series, if the movie gets a big audience. NBC has scheduled it on the crucial final day of the official TV season, so it's not being hidden in a corner.
What's more, I found it rather entertaining.
Greenwood is perfectly cast, and his gonzo mentor shows great potential,
especially when he finds a way to eavesdrop on
the publisher's office through the ventilation system.
Anyway, I don't think America will want to see a real-life newspaperman at work until insomnia becomes a national epidemic and we all need something like that to put us to sleep.
Copyright 1991, San Jose Mercury News
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Last update: November 1, 2000 3:31 AM