The Mercenary Position

Photo: Courtesy of TNT

As if he had been left outside too long in desert weathers, Sam Elliott looks like a saddle, sounds like a stagecoach, and saunters like a tumbleweed. In his lazy menace, Marlboro manhood isn’t just personified; it’s taxidermied. Should the San Andreas Fault ever need a voice-over, Sam’s our man. But in his gulchy eyes there is also something sensitive—not Brokeback, mind you, but tenderfooted, like an inner ukulele. It was to such an inner ukulele that Katharine Ross addressed her poems in their lovelorn Western, Conagher. Sam and Katharine, who met on the set of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, are married to each other in real life, as if real life were a rehearsal for the many made-for-cable Louis L’Amours in which they would subsequently co-star, perhaps explaining why he’s more comfortable on the screen with her than he has been with, say, Whoopi Goldberg in Fatal Beauty or Patrick Swayze in Road House.

But as Cal Dexter in Avenger, he is all alone—a one-man mercenary army, a freelance vigilante, a Special Forces war-hero misfit who left the reservation after Vietnam. His backstory is that his daughter fell in with a Peruvian drug lord, who then killed her. Naturally, in a TV movie adapted from a Frederick Forsyth novel aspiring to become a series, the hero’s daughter couldn’t have run off with a hippie, a salesman, or the circus. It had to be someone as resonant as a drug lord, so that when her father avenged her, the personal became geopolitical. After which Sam will advertise his payback services, like Edward Woodward in The Equalizer. Just as naturally, when a rich father hires him to find out whatever became of his missing do-gooder son, our white-haired avenger winds up in the middle of a triple cross involving at least one Western intelligence agency, one Serbian war criminal, several Islamic terrorist bomb-makers, and a surprising amount of real estate in South Africa.

Timothy Hutton and James Cromwell ought to be interesting as CIA heavies. But Hutton was better in the 1998 Showtime movie Aldrich Ames: Traitor Within, as the alcoholic who sold out the agency. And although Cromwell has the movie’s metamoment (“It’s just a job, it’s not who you are,” he lies out loud to his younger subordinate), he doubtless misses the brains at Six Feet Under. Nor has novelist Forsyth, whose The Day of the Jackal seems in retrospect to have been the surprise exception to a general rule of claptrap, improved our understanding of the difference between vigilantes and private eyes. What really lathers a vigilante are crimes against property, meaning his property, specifically his women and children. He is thus self-authorized to indulge his fantasies of violence. Whereas the mean-streets gumshoe is the last romantic in a corrupt world. There is no reason why Sam Elliott couldn’t have been such a gumshoe—an omelette of Saint Francis and Saint George, a mixed grill of Quixote, Galahad, and Robin Hood, a submarine sandwich of psychotherapist and hanging judge—except that the culture itself seems to have settled instead for bloodlust and wet dreams.

Although the hourlong documentary films gathered under the History Channel umbrella of 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America vary in quality, each has its passionate point to make, each tries to rethink how television can tell us illustrated stories about our problematic past, and none is ignoble. For two hours every night for five nights, we will look at, and hear about, what the Puritans did to the Pequot Indians in 1637; what the Commonwealth of Massachusetts did to its own farmers during Shays’s Rebellion of 1787; what the gold rush meant for the railroading-building robber barons after 1848; how Antietam in 1862 led to the Emancipation Proclamation; how the assassination of William McKinley made progressive politics suddenly possible; the Scopes trial clash of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan; Elvis on Ed Sullivan’s show; and the Freedom Summer of 1964 after the murders of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney.

The picks of the litter are Rory Kennedy’s explanation of why neither Andrew Carnegie nor Henry Clay Frick should have been able to sleep at night after the 1892 Homestead Strike, and Barak Goodman’s deep reading of the letter Einstein wrote to FDR about the possibility of an American atom bomb. Other directors include R. J. Cutler, Joe Berlinger, Marco Williams, and Kate Davis, and the narrators include Hector Elizondo, Jeffrey Wright, Martin Sheen, and Joe Morton. Among the brilliant talking heads, Peter Nabokov, Joseph Ellis, JoAnn Levy, and David Nasaw chat about Sam Adams, Leland Stanford, Emma Goldman, the occasional anarchist, the numerous Pinkertons, and the question of genocide. Also, like some weird tweety-bird, Sarah Vowell performs for us. And Bill Plympton undertakes the animation of a post–Revolutionary War period that eventuated in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

For once, the History Channel complicates the American past instead of oversimplifying it, and as a result, much of what’s been glossed over in our high-school history textbooks—class war, race hate, labor violence—comes rushing onscreen as if from smoking ruins and unmarked graves.

TNT. Premieres Sunday, April 9, 8 p.m.

10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America
The History Channel. April 9 to 13, 9 p.m.

The Mercenary Position