"Nuremberg," a four-hour film about the trial of 22 Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg after World War II, is the kind of made-for-TV movie the broadcast networks rarely make anymore - a historical work of social conscience with a rock-ribbed moral center. And they should be ashamed.
"Nuremberg," which premieres tomorrow night on TNT, is one of the more important made-for-TV movie events of the year. Based on the nonfiction book, "Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial," by Joseph E. Persico, this is a kind of reality television, too, in this summer of "Survivor" and "Big Brother."
This reality, which deals with the murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazis and mankind's effort in the wake of it to establish new standards of international justice and accountability, is surely more demanding than people playing games on a South Pacific Island. But give it 10 minutes of your time and I guarantee you'll be there all four hours. "Nuremberg" is one of the most emotionally and intellectually stimulating TV movie experiences I've had since HBO's "The Corner."
The cast is superb. Alec Baldwin as Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, the lead prosecutor; Brian Cox as Nazi Gen. Hermann Goering; Christopher Plummer as Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, the British prosecutor; and Jill Hennessy as Elsie Douglas, Jackson's secretary.
Baldwin and Cox are the dramatic yin and yang of the piece. But what makes the courtroom absolutely crackle with tension when the two face off - Jackson at the podium attacking Goering, while Hitler's second-in-command sits glaring back at his accuser - is that neither is a simple black-and-white depiction.
Screenwriter David W. Rintels - who has won Emmys for "Fear on Trial," with George C. Scott, and "Clarence Darrow," with Henry Fonda - avoids the easy route of making Goering out to be a monster. Instead, working with Persico's research, he shows us an almost larger-than-life figure, one who can charm you one minute playing the accordion for his American captors and then repulse you the next with his arrogance and utter lack of empathy for a Jewish victim of Nazi atrocities.
"I had to do some soul searching when I was offered the part," Cox said in a press conference to promote the film. "I asked myself whether I really wanted to spend two months [while the movie was being filmed] with this person in my consciousness. I have heard people refer to him as a psychopath. He was a man who was spoiled by success and became hedonistic. He was immensely vain. But, curiously, I found him to be a man of honor."
The honor part is the surprise, and Cox absolutely nails it.
Baldwin is the big star with the heaviest dramatic lifting to do. After all, his Jackson is essentially representing decency and civilization against the horrific barbarism of Hitler's Third Reich. But the film would never sustain the kind of tension it does for four hours if Cox's Goering could not balance Jackson's morality with a code of conduct and sense of self-righteousness just as powerful in its own twisted way.
"Nuremberg" is sure to be compared in the minds of many viewers to the 1961 classic "Judgment at Nuremberg," with its cast of Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster. I recently rented "Judgment" and was absolutely blown away by its performances and stunning moral intensity.
"Nuremberg" is not ""Judgment at Nuremberg." It's not that grand. But "Nuremberg" is based on the actual history, while "Judgment" is a fictionalized version of the trials convened by the allied nations of Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States to judge and punish Nazis after the war for their crimes against humanity.
Yves Simoneau, director of "Nuremberg," said he watched "Judgment" before starting the TNT project, and was surprised by what he found.
"It took me three rental places to find the film, and at each place the clerks did not have a clue about it," he said. "Nuremberg is now a sort of nonentity to a lot of people. This movie can reintroduce the concept of the trial, which was so important to the 20th century."
"Nuremberg" tells a story that needs to be told again to each generation. Make no mistake about it. The box-office muscle of Baldwin, who served as executive producer, is what got this film made.
Asked why he did the movie for cable television, Baldwin said: "I saw this as an opportunity to reintroduce one of the most significant portions of world history to a new generation."
For that he is to be commended.