A Christmas drama that embraces family-friendly themes but eschews cheap sentimentality, The Gathering concerns a clan brought together by impending tragedy. When bullheaded, self-involved patriarch Adam Thornton (Ed Asner) receives a terminal diagnosis, he decides to visit each of his far-flung adult children one last time. He also resolves to make peace with his wife, from whom he is separated. Adam’s doctor forbids him to travel, so Adam’s wife, Kate (Maureen Stapleton), proposes a gathering at the family home instead. Yet because Adam finds the idea of pity appalling, he insists that his medical condition be kept secret. Kate calls the kids home, somewhat ingeniously letting them entertain fantasies that their parents will reconcile. From there, the drama proceeds methodically but with great speed. Adam’s children initially resist the idea of a gathering, some because they resent the way he treated Kate in the past, and some because they dread arguments. For one of Adam’s children, coming home is fraught with political implications, because Bud (Gregory Harrison) deserted the U.S. for Canada to avoid the Vietnam-era draft, a decision that caused a painful rift between Bud and his staunchly patriotic father. Other subplots are more pedestrian, as with the son-in-law embarrassed because he’s not a good provider and the eldest son embittered by his father’s withholding nature. Still, quite a bit of material gets crammed into 94 minutes.
As directed by Randal Klesier, whose previous TV-movie successes include The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976) and who soon graduated to big-budget features with Grease (1978), The Gathering is like a consolidated version of a soapy miniseries. Most of the characters and conflicts are indicated rather than fully explored, so critical viewers might find the picture superficial and unsatisfying. For those willing to accept the piece on its terms, the reductive approach works quite well. As the title suggests, The Gathering isn’t about the various aspects of tension within the Thornton family so much as it’s about the unique power of holiday get-togethers. For some of the siblings, returning home is about recapturing childhood. For others, it’s about settling scores. And for some, it’s about taking stock and, if possible, building bridges.
The Gathering says something bittersweet about Christmas and, on a larger level, all the holiday celebrations that make the final months of the calendar emotional. Watching a year fade into the past forces one to ask what’s been gained and what’s been lost with the passage of time, and it reminds one to consider how the future can be made better than the past. Through the simple device of exploring a specific individual’s mortality, this effective telefilm expresses a humane message about impermanence and love. Asner’s performance drives the piece, his character’s warmth struggling to penetrate a gruff exterior, and Stapleton matches him with wounded compassion. Adept supporting players include Bruce Davison, Stephen Pressman, John Randolph, Gail Strickland, and Edward Winter, though the film’s biggest star may be composer John Barry. His exquisite main theme captures everything the picture tries to say about the difficulty people encounter when striving for transcendence. The Gathering received five Emmy nominations, winning one for Outstanding Special, and a sequel, The Gathering, Part II, aired in 1979.
The Gathering: GROOVY