TNT's 'Gifted Hands' is a crowning achievement

The Baltimore Sun

Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story is a made-for-TV movie that seems tailor-made for the times in which we live.

With its core story of a poor boy overcoming tremendous obstacles to become a transformative figure in his profession and the world, the biography, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. as the world-famous Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon, should be perfectly in sync with the Barack Obama zeitgeist. More than at any time since the Age of Anxiety in the 1950s, Americans seem eager for stories of individual achievement, and this one's one of the best anyone could imagine.

And unlike many TV movies about people who have lived exemplary lives, the TNT documentary-drama avoids the deadly mistake of treating its character like a saint.

Remember the kid-gloves treatment given Sen. John McCain in the 2005 A&E; cable movie about his life, Faith of My Fathers? It was practically a campaign ad in the way it excised anything unpleasant - like divorce - from the plot.

But not Gifted Hands, which is based on Carson's book of the same name. The producers understand that viewers need to see a multidimensional, believable human being on the screen if they are to be engaged by the film.

This hero is a flawed one with a temper that once led him as a teenager to stab a classmate and raise a hammer as if to strike his mother in a moment of rage. Later, as a middle-aged man in crisis, he seemed to be on the verge of losing his nerve. These are not pretty moments, and Carson and the producers could have left them out or softened them. But to their credit - and our viewing pleasure - they didn't.

Carson's saga starts in Detroit with an older brother, a single mother given to bouts of depression and a father who had abandoned the family. Bennie, as he was then called, is an underachiever in school.

Telling the story of a hero's childhood is often a matter of getting it out of the way as fast as possible in TV, but not in this case. Contributing greatly to the power of this film is the story of Carson's mother, who despite her own problems, was a bottomless well of encouragement for her son - as well as an inspirational role model with her own commitment to hard work and learning to read.

On a practical level, she begins to suspect that her son needs glasses, and when she is proven correct, she finds the money to get him a pair. And then, she encourages him to read, listen to music, visit museums and, above all, engage his imagination. It is an awesome account of what the power of love and encouragement can do for a child.

In Carson's case, it led him to Yale and a residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital. And let me praise Carson and the filmmakers one more time for not pulling punches. The film includes some horrible, ugly, jarring moments of racism in which a teaching doctor sought to humiliate and intimidate his only black intern. As marvelous an institution as Hopkins is today, it does have a horrible history of racism, and that is part of the story, too.

This is not a perfect film - or even a movie for everyone. To those viewers who think a story told earnestly cannot possibly be profound, I say don't bother. Watch your DVD of Deadwood.

You will probably think Gifted Hands is old-fashioned and possibly even one-dimensional. But believe me, it isn't - especially as Carson struggles with his own doubts after his wife's miscarriage of twins as he prepares to separate conjoined German twins.

The film soars down that home stretch thanks in large part to the sensitive and powerful performance of Gooding. A scene that features him alone in their bedroom the night after his wife's miscarriage is the stuff of which Emmys are made, and he gets every last ounce of humanity and anguish out of the moment.

We all know how the famous 1987 conjoined-twin operation ended - Carson found a way to keep the babies from bleeding to death by shutting down their hearts for an hour, a daring technique that had never been tried. He also managed to save both twins - another first.

But even as the on-screen Carson accepts accolades for his work, Gooding, without saying a word, communicates the pain behind the smile at the memory that there was nothing he could do to save his own twins.

One dimensional? I don't think so. Try profound - both for the performance and the film.

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