Laura Dern soars as Air Force widow in HBO's 'Afterburn'

Do not tune in "Afterburn" tonight expecting to see "Top Gun." The U.S. Air Force did not cooperate in the making of the new HBO Pictures film, and the few flying scenes and other airplane shots play obviously as models and mock-ups.

But do tune in for a persuasive performance by actress Laura Dern. She portrays a real-life Air Force widow, who, after the 1982 death of her pilot husband in Korea while flying an F-16 fighter jet, took the Air Force and manufacturer General Dynamics to court to prove a faulty plane caused the crash, not pilot error.


The movie debuts at 8 p.m. on the premium cable service (with repeats June 2, 5, 9, 14 and 18).

Ms. Dern, an Academy Award nominee for 1991's "Rambling Rose," pilots the movie pretty much solo. Robert Loggia's performance as her lawyer, and Vincent Spano's as her husband, are strictly back-seat by comparison.


Sharp viewers may remember the case upon which "Afterburn" is based from a 1987 edition of the CBS series "60 Minutes." In fact, production notes indicate the movie came about because Diane Sawyer (now with ABC) referred the real-life subject, Janet Harduvel, to "Afterburn" producer Steve Tisch after she told her story on the show.

Some elements of the case, in fact, are still in litigation, as viewers will learn in an epilogue to the movie.

The details of the legal case are a problem with the film, for discussions of the side effects of antibiotics, the specifications for inertial navigation systems, or even the non-cooperation of Air Force authorities do not make great drama.

Yet Ms. Dern's range brings her character to life. Viewers see how personal anguish transforms into actions that may have led to life-saving improvements in an airplane that was heavily used in the Persian Gulf campaign last year (as Mrs. Harduvel contends in publicity material).

In the early going, her character is a flighty, sexy young waitress falling for the fighter jock. Yet in one scene years later -- they have married and had a daughter -- Ms. Dern visibly conveys an awful aging process as she is awakened at night to the sound of a car door slamming. She knows the officers outside her door have bad news.

Out of the grieving process, including friends who do not understand her passion for clearing her husband's reputation and insensitive questions from accident investigators -- such as whether her husband might have been depressed -- the widow finds meaning in doggedly pursuing information.

Like many based-on-fact films, the movie uncomfortably mixes elements of investigative journalism with the needs of dramatic exposition. Viewers are undoubtably being asked to believe in a government and contractor cover-up, but does it make the case? That's questionable.

But in human terms, and through Ms. Dern's performance, "Afterburn" offers a persuasive story.



IT'S TELETHON TIME -- The annual "Children's Miracle Telethon" goes on the air at 9 tonight, and will run on WMAR-TV (Channel 2) until 6 p.m. tomorrow, with local pledges going to help the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

The ninth annual telecast raising money for children's hospitals comes nationally from both Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California, with hosts John Schneider ("The Dukes of Hazzard") and Marie Osmond (the Osmond Foundation is a key supporter of the telethon).

Channel 2 anchors Sally Thorner and Stan Stovall present local portions of the program.

Last year's "Children's Miracle Telethon" raised an estimated $1.5 million for the Hopkins center.