After a series of sniggering sex comedies and dull adventure tales, TNT has come up with a solid drama in Rising Son. It’s a modernized version of ’50s ”kitchen sink” drama — the story of a middle-age man who loses his job and has a troubled relationship with his teenage son — but there’s nothing weepy or self-indulgent about Rising Son’s intense emotionalism.
Brian Dennehy plays Gus Robinson, a foreman in a Detroit auto factory. His youngest son, Charlie (Matt Damon), comes home from college one weekend to announce that he has dropped out of his pre-med program, that he doesn’t want to be a doctor, and that he’ll work ”on the line” with his dad.
But the factory starts laying off employees — Rising Son is set a few years ago, and the workers make many bitter remarks about the failure of ”the Reagan revolution” — and Gus sees the impending end not only of his livelihood but also of his dreams for his son’s future.
This premise isn’t original, but screenwriter Bill Phillips has done a remarkable job of avoiding all the clichés of this sort of story; he has refused to turn it into a melodrama. (It also should be noted that this is Phillips’ week: He cowrote El Diablo.)
No actor is physically better-suited to play this sort of sensitive blue-collar man than beefy Brian Dennehy — unless it’s even-beefier Graham Beckel as Billy, Gus’ buddy on the assembly line. The underrated Beckel is perfect at portraying vulgar louts and was one of the few good reasons to have seen last season’s Family of Spies miniseries on CBS. Here he turns in another well-modulated performance that avoids caricature.
Together, Dennehy and Beckel grouse and guffaw in scenes that play like a serious version of The Honeymooners — their working-class despair is both poignant and funny. Equally good are the explosive scenes between Dennehy and Damon (rarely has a father-son quarrel been as frank) and the quiet scenes between Dennehy and Piper Laurie as his wife. Subtle and moving, Rising Son is a job well done by all. A-