Clever and slick but also quite thoughtful, the made-for-TV feature Katherine depicts the radicalization of a rich white girl from Colorado during the heyday of the anti-Vietnam War movement. Beginning with her eye-opening experience as a teacher of impoverished farmers living near an American mission in Peru, Katherine Alman (Sissy Spacek) becomes more and more incensed about the social inequities of the modern world, which naturally creates estrangement between Katherine and her wealthy parents, Emily (Jane Wyatt) and Thornton (Art Carney). Meanwhile, Katherine’s commitment to revolutionary change brings her into the orbit of Bob Kline (Henry Winkler), a fellow teacher-turned-radical, and the two eventually join the Weathermen wing of Students for a Democratic Society. Writer-director Jeremy Paul Kagan, whose script was inspired by the exploits of real-life SDS activist Diana Oughton, exhibits a deft touch for blending entertainment and issues.
The best scenes in Katherine feature direct human conflict that dramatizes class warfare, ranging from an early scene of a thuggish overseer whipping a farm worker to a pivotal re-creation of the riots surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Even in smaller scenes, Kagan effectively crystallizes major political strife into relatable disagreements. For instance, the sequence of Bob and Katherine receiving pressure from black citizens and white cops to close the school where Bob and Katherine teach African-American youths illustrates how many different battle lines were drawn in the late ’60s. Scenes set in the Alman house lack the same measure of authenticity, because Kagan’s choice to gift his character with a privileged background overstates the stereotype of part-time radicals who retain the safety net of running home to Mom and Dad.
That said, committed acting elevates even the most contrived parts of Katherine. Carney embodies old-fashioned American decency so beautifully that he evokes the movies of Frank Capra, and Winkler—a long way from Fonzie thanks to his moustache and shaggy hair—imbues his character with the beguiling/maddening blend of messianic charisma and smug narcissism that plagued so many men in the antiwar movement. Holding the film together, of course, is Spacek, an actor nearly incapable of striking a false note. Even Spacek’s great powers, however, are tested by some of the strident speeches that Kagan’s script forces her to deliver. Yet stilted dialogue isn’t the only component of Katherine that feels wobbly, as Kagan’s storytelling involves three layers—documentary-style vignettes in which characters address the camera, fully dramatized re-creations of events, and eerie clips of Katherine telling her own story. Although the last of these three elements could have been discarded without much harm to the film’s dramatic power, Kagan sticks the landing with a beautifully cut final sequence that pulls all of the story’s threads together.