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San Jose Mercury News
Friday April 12, 1991


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.
   Later,  when  the  bull  fails to work and the gangsters start shooting, Hightower blurts: "They tried to kill us!"

   "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.
   I  don't  even  mind the unrealistic portrayal of my business; there are times when it even seems a little unreal to me.

   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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