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Outta Sight

HBO and Showtime both look at the federal witness-protection program and report that being invisible isn't the same thing as being free.

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What's your point? Forest Whitaker (left) and Tom Sizemore in HBO's Witness Protection.  

Toward the end of Witness Protection (Saturday, December 11; 8 to 9:45 p.m.; HBO), we are told that a government program started in 1970 by the Nixon administration with the idea of accommodating maybe 40 people a year now enlists more than 600 annually; that there are some 16,000 Americans out there somewhere under assumed names and counterfeit identities, a ghost colony of turncoats, tattletales and/or whistle-blowers, and their wives and children, an archipelago of cover stories. I find it hard to attach a meaning to these numbers. They float, but they do not signify, in a foggy paranoia. In Manhattan alone, there would seem to be at least as many nail salons. Greater numbers go to prison every month, or claim to have been abducted by aliens, or download pornography from the World Wide Web. And the program itself, promising safe passage to a fresh start for those who turn state's evidence in federal cases prosecutors really care about, must have shown up 16,000 times as a plot device in TV movies and serials. What does this do to our understanding of heretofore honorable concepts like "sanctuary" and "asylum"?

Witness Protection, inspired by Robert Sabbag's authorized-access, inside-the-underground article in The New York Times Magazine, wants to assure us that a safe passage isn't a free ride. That after the Feds have found you a house and bought you some furniture and helped with an allowance to meet a few of your start-up costs, you will have to get a job. That you'll have to get that job on your own because they are not about to fake a résumé suggesting that you're an engineer or a heart surgeon (or even a lawyer), when all you've ever really been is a middle-management bullyboy in the mob, a switch on the cokehead circuit board, a soldier in the militia, or a hood in the Klan, who just happens to know enough to make your selling out worth the price, after which you're still a snitch. And that all of this will be very hard on your family, who may not have been aware of your criminal activities and who were certainly accustomed to a higher standard of living.

So meet Bobby Batton (Tom Sizemore), who has been skimming from the Boston mob. And his incredulous wife, Cindy (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who seems never to have wondered where the money came from for their two Cadillacs. And his indignant son, Sean (Shawn Hatosy), who'll never get into Harvard if he has to go to public high school. And his 5-year-old daughter, Suzie (Skye McCole Bartusiak), the Tiny Tim in this dysfunctional family. When someone rats out Bobby, and his bosses put out a contract on him, his only option is to rat right back at them, to the Feds. But before the Battons disappear forever (Seattle is mentioned), they have to undergo a working week of indoctrination, "redocumentation," and psychological counseling in a safe house that becomes, before our increasingly interested eyes, a castle out of Kafka: windowless, of course, with electric locks, video surveillance cameras, and Forest Whitaker.

Whitaker plays U.S. marshal Steve Beck as a combination of orthopedic gym teacher, boot-camp drill instructor, group therapist, and stepfather confessor. One of his eyes is slow (a calendar), and the other is fast (a clock). His whole being, in fact, moves at two different speeds, as if the mind were impatient to get on to something worthier of its exertions while the body has been weighed down with the bad news a long past has lumped on it. It is an amazing performance. We learn absolutely nothing about his personal life but somehow absorb his empathy, his weariness and his restlessness, even as he is showing the Battons glossy atrocity pictures of children murdered because their families didn't stick with the program. While Bobby's being irrational, and Cindy hysterical, and Sean a teenager, and Suzie cute, Beck is all over them like the weather; he contains their climates.

Sizemore, from so much practice in movies like Strange Days and Natural Born Killers, knows how to be a complicated brute. Mastrantonio mostly keens -- for the lost upwardness of her mobility, for the unraveling of her nest. Hatosy actually makes us believe that a petulant juvenile could love his little sister enough to give his unpleasant father an undeserved second chance. Daniel Therriault's screenplay and Richard Pearce's direction know enough to tiptoe around Whitaker, who knows he'll be sending these people out into another sort of limbo, naked and clueless refugees from themselves.

And in the odd way these things work, we almost immediately meet Whitaker's next customer. He will be William Baldwin in Brotherhood of Murder (Sunday, December 12; 8 to 9:30 p.m.; Showtime), a generally listless docudrama adapted by Robert J. Avrech from the nonfiction book by Tom Martinez as told to John Guinther. Martinez, who imagines himself a descendant of Spanish nobility, finds on his return to Philadelphia in 1983 after an unhappy stint in the Army that, because of affirmative action, black people and other minorities have all the semi-skilled jobs he needs to support his wife (Kelly Lynch) and newborn child. He drifts into the embrace of the Order, an Aryan supremacy group led by the charismatic crazy Bob Mathews -- played by Peter Gallagher with so much weird hair piled on top of his bruised face that he looks like a ticket to Jonestown. In Washington State, Bob and his paranoid losers plot the robbery of a Brinks armored car and the assassination of Denver radio talk-show host Alan Berg (Rob LaBelle).

Martinez, not so hot on either target practice or Mein Kampf, decides that he abhors violence altogether. So when the FBI grabs him for passing counterfeit money, he cuts a deal. By the end of the TV movie in the usual Waco shootout, I know I'm supposed to be thinking about Ruby Ridge, Oklahoma City, and state violence versus domestic terrorism. But I'm thinking instead about the Baldwin brothers, all of whom have this sort of pulp cunning. And about Peter Gallagher, who'd be better off in a musical with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. And about the witness-protection program into which, of course, Tom Martinez disappeared -- as if it were a secret society, an underground cell, a Druidic cult, or Creeps Anonymous.


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