Topical made-for-TV movies have gotten a bad rap over the years, and not without justification—name a hot-button social issue from the ’70s to the present, and chances are there’s a perfunctory telefilm about the topic, if not a number of them. Given this backdrop, ripped-from-the-headlines TV movies that qualify as legitimate dramas seem even more exceptional than they might otherwise. Friendly Fire is a good example. Opting for quiet character moments over outright emotional fireworks, Friendly Fire explores the circumstances and repercussions of a controversial topic quite effectively by grounding its story in the harsh realities of human pain. Based on a book by C.D.B. Bryan that detailed the experiences of a real American family, the picture concerns two Midwestern parents who cut through government red tape while investigating how their son died in Vietnam. With the help of a reporter, the couple eventually discovers their son died, accidentally, at the hands of a fellow U.S. soldier, hence the film’s title.
Yet the heat of Friendly Fire doesn’t just come from the revelation of a battlefield tragedy. Rather, much of the picture concerns an attempted cover-up by the U.S. government and the U.S. military, two entities desperate to keep a socially acceptable “face” on the Vietnam War. As the long movie progresses (Friendly Fire runs 147 minutes), it’s impossible not to grow more and more infuriated with the stubborn bureaucracy with which the parents are confronted. Presented in an unvarnished style, with present-day scenes of the parents revolving around flashbacks to Vietnam that gradually reveal the true facts of what happened there, Friendly Fire packs a punch for several reasons, one of which is highly surprising: The star of his very heavy picture is none other than beloved TV comedienne Carol Burnett, who was still fresh from the long run of her eponymous variety show. Dispelling any humorous associations with her gravitas-laden performance, Burnett and costar Ned Beatty create an absorbing illusion with their respective portrayals of Iowa residents Peg and Gene Mullen. Exuding heartland values and the noble grief of parents who need to imbue their son’s death with meaning, the Mullens, as played by Burnett and Beatty, represent a uniquely American sort of selfless heroism—their bittersweet victory in exposing the truth is a triumph for all parents who entrust their children to America’s military.
Director David Greene, a versatile helmer of big- and small-screen projects whose filmography includes everything from the religious musical Godspell (1973) to most episodes of the seminal miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man (1976), approaches the film’s sensitive subject matter with restraint, allowing the poignant textures of Burnett’s performance to dominate. (Beatty is wonderful, too, though his job is playing straight man to Burnett’s bravura emotionalism.) As for the other principal actors, Sam Waterston, whose character is based on C.D.B. Bryan (the author of the source material), offers fine support as the principled journalist who makes the Mullens’ cause his own, and a young Timothy Hutton appears as the Mullens’ other son, a young man wrestling with anguish and guilt while his family’s existence becomes an endless battle against a monolithic system.
Friendly Fire: GROOVY