Better acted, more complicated and surprising than most TV movies, The Burden of Proof is a four-hour adaptation of Scott Turow’s 1990 best-seller of the same name. Under the direction of Mike Robe (Son of the Morning Star), The Burden of Proof is by no means great, but it’s very satisfying: Its knotty plot complications pay off emotionally, and Burden doesn’t treat its audience with the sloppy contempt that mediocre TV movies frequently radiate.
Burden of Proof picks up on a supporting character from Turow’s previous novel, Presumed Innocent — Alejandro ”Sandy” Stern, a hugely successful defense attorney. At the start of Burden of Proof, Sandy, played by Hector Elizondo, finds his wife, Clara (Concetta Tomei of China Beach), dead in their home, an apparent suicide. Sandy, distraught, can’t imagine why she would have killed herself and begins to investigate his wife’s past. At the same time, Sandy finds himself in court defending his brother-in-law, Dixon Hartnell, a major financier played by Brian Dennehy, who has been accused of insider trading.
Add to this Sandy’s troubled relationship with his hostile doctor son (Thomas Anthony Quinn), his increasingly strong friendship with his therapist (Stefanie Powers), his one-night stand with a Southern businesswoman (Victoria Principal, in a small role and using what seems to be Dolly Parton’s voice), as well as his thoroughly unprofessional attraction to one of the Federal prosecutors opposing him in court (thirtysomething’s Mel Harris), and you’ve got one tricky little story. It’s all potboiler material that becomes transcendent TV-movie fodder, racy but intricately crafted, melodramatic but well thought out. It’s no wonder that Turow was recently quoted in The New York Times as saying that even though television movies carry less prestige than feature films, he sought out a TV adaptation of his book because ”the story of The Burden of Proof could not be contained in a two-hour film.”
The author has been well served in the teleplay adaptation of Burden by John Gay (who also adapted Fatal Vision for TV). Gay accomplishes the difficult task of associating Clara’s suicide with Dixon’s financial troubles without making the connection seem mechanical or dramatically unbelievable. To say more would be to give away too much of Burden’s thriller plot, but it should be noted that Gay and director Robe do an excellent job of establishing Turow’s overriding theme: When you combine family and business, family suffers, big-time.
In the 1990 feature film that was made from Presumed Innocent, Raul Julia brought his weighty presence and suave flamboyance to the role of Sandy Stern; Elizondo, as this TV movie’s San-dy, is an altogether different sort of performer. A character actor with real range (think of his shrewd-but-kindly hotel manager in Pretty Woman, his tough-but-loving father in The Flamingo Kid), Elizondo is smaller, quieter, and perhaps a less showy actor than Julia. In his low-key but commanding way, Elizondo makes for a fine companion over the course of two nights.
Sandy is also an unusual TV-movie hero. Raised in Argentina, he views himself as an outsider in America, and carries himself with a stiff, formal air. He speaks in long, convoluted sentences and has no time for humor; the closest he comes to cracking a joke is when Dennehy’s Dixon tells him that lots of women will be attracted to him now that he’s single again. ”Oh, I’m sure the line will be long for a man with whom another found life not worth living,” Sandy says with a bitter smile. Dixon sits there with a dumb look on his face, and you can almost hear him trying to figure out the syntax: ”man with whom another found…huh?” It’s a terrific, delayed-reaction moment.
Less terrific is the vague characterization of Stefanie Powers’ Helen Dudak; first as Sandy’s therapist, then as family friend, and eventually his lover, she becomes more important as the movie proceeds, but we don’t see enough of her to get a fix on her personality. Another mistake is a drippy romance-novel scene in which Mel Harris, whose character has barely met Sandy and who has been battling him in court, abruptly doffs her clothes and hops into a hot tub with him. (The best thing about the scene is that Harris’ Sonia Klonsky is supposed to be pregnant, and you’re not sure whether Sandy is startled, embarrassed, or really turned on by the eagerness of this beautiful, great-with-child woman to skinny-dip with him.) And I should warn you that most of the good stuff happens on the second night, so you have to be patient.
That said, The Burden of Proof is unusually smart fare for a sweeps-ratings period — a time when the networks usually hammer you with their bluntest material. True to its literary roots, Burden offers the glimpses of wealth, sex, and power that make best-sellers best-sellers, but packages them in a story that lifts them above the level of a merely guilty pleasure. B+