So what if The Confession (Friday, March 26; 8 to 10 p.m.; Cinemax) changes the ending of the novel from which it's adapted to the exact opposite of the novelist's own despairing choice? At least, after 33 years, they've finally made a TV movie out of Sol Yurick's Fertig; it took them only fourteen years to make a big-screen film out of his first novel, The Warriors. I'm trying to be grateful. If, as directed by David Jones, The Confession is a bit sluggish, David Black's screenplay nevertheless pokes us in the eye with issues as sharp as spears.
Ben Kingsley, in his Mahatma Gandhi-Simon Wiesenthal mode, plays Harry Fertig, an accountant for a major corporation. Which is to say, he is all gravid principle, damn the explosive consequences. When his 5-year-old son, Stevie, stricken with appendicitis, is refused treatment in the emergency ward of one hospital and dies in a cab on the way to another, not only will Fertig pass judgment on those who fail in their responsibility to help; he executes that judgment personally. In the novel, this meant seven dead bodies, including a rabbi; in the movie, it means three, hold the rabbi. And when Jack Grenoble (Jay O. Sanders), the CEO of the corporation to whose secrets this accountant has been privy, hires hotshot defense attorney Roy Bleakie (Alec Baldwin) to plead Fertig not guilty by reason of insanity, they're both astonished when his own sanity is what he insists on. Unlike the people he has killed, having completed his audit, having balanced his books, he assumes responsibility. That's the ethical point.
If you haven't read the novel, I don't want to spoil its narrative suspense. But you do need to know that Grenoble wants Fertig declared insane so that nothing he may say later on -- about, for instance, a highway-beautification project that involved toxic dumping that then required an expensive new filtering system for an upstate reservoir in order to save New York City's water supply from PCBs -- will ever be credible in a police investigation or a court of law. And that the real payoff for the go-along-to-get-along Bleakie is the promise of a promotion to district attorney. And that as easily as pols buy lawyers and their own species of convenient justice, so, just as easily, lawyers buy psychiatrists and their own species of convenient lunacy. There is even an I. F. Stone-admiring journalist who sells out cheap (for a Nieman fellowship). What we have is systemic malpractice.
While Kingsley/Fertig specializes in the adamantine like some Khmer god-king, Baldwin/Bleakie is a moral weather vane, big but soft. His career blows one way, his conscience another, and his priapic urgencies a third. He will even sleep with Sara (Amy Irving), Fertig's wife, who has gone untouched by Fertig since the death of their child. Irving, as she has been in everything from Carrie to Yentl to Crossing Delancey to A Show of Force, is both marvelous and troubling -- an Old Testament beauty and neurotic urban chick. The almond-eyed good-bye look she gives Baldwin when the trial is over is so enigmatic it might have been borrowed from Pinter. (Jones, in fact, directed the film version of Pinter's Betrayal, which was also surprisingly sluggish.) Irving blurs all these hard edges: we never know what she's really thinking; we suspect some deep erotic dream.
Still, having raised most of the questions Yurick asked in the novel, The Confession fudges on his darker answers by turning Bleakie into a last-minute hero, as if the Big Fix were, instead, To Kill a Mockingbird. Had Roy Bleakie really been a hero, he would never have become a U.S. senator in Yurick's next novel, The Bag, a more radical account of urban corruption -- and one so expansive that it managed to include Norman Podhoretz, Allen Ginsberg, and Bobby Kennedy. What this flawed but absorbing TV movie does suggest is that all Sol Yurick's novels deserve a film. From The Warriors, his riff on youth gangs reinventing Xenophon's Anabasis, Walter Hill made a violent ballet of skinheads, Rollerbladers, Valkyries, and baseball bats in a neon jukebox jungle. I'd like to see a Spike Lee or a Jonathan Demme take on the insurrectionary Bag. And either James Cameron or Ridley Scott could have subversive fun with Richard A., whose mad amalgam of neurophysiology and computer technology, the Cabala and the Mafia, so eerily anticipated the cyberpunk fiction of the libertarian William Gibson and the Trotskyist Ken MacLeod.