Even Toni Collette, playing a God-fearing do-gooder determined to save, feed, cherish, and educate every child in ravaged Thailand, has begun to have doubts by the third hour of Tsunami, HBO’s reimagining of the killer waves of December 26, 2004. Some 227,073 lives were lost. Only 176,300 bodies were recovered. A third of the victims were children. “Maybe I’m just talking to myself,” worries Collette, when all along she has imagined she was talking to Jesus. Yet back to work in the rubble she goes, a credit to her God, who needs as much of it as He can get after what He did to the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Coast.
Collette’s Kathy is only one of a dozen characters in Abi Morgan’s absorbing screenplay, filmed on location in Phuket and Khao Lak, who are trying simultaneously to find their missing loved ones and make sense of the devastation that fell down on them out of a warm blue sky. A pair of loving parents on a holiday (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sophie Okonedo) lose their daughter and almost their sanity. A young Thai waiter in a luxury resort (Samrit Machielsen) loses not only his grandmother but his ancestral fishing village, to bulldozers, real-estate speculators, and corrupt government officials. A seedy journalist left over from a Graham Greene novel (Tim Roth) saves not only his career but quite possibly his soul, by publishing the truth about the redevelopment of the coast, which happened at the expense of those who actually used to live there.
As the scene shifts abruptly from snorkel and snooze to sudden death and sustained grief, we are asked to worry how long a little girl can hold on to a palm tree in heavy winds and waves, and whether the burning of unidentified bodies by Buddhist monks in saffron robes is a religious obligation, a public-health precaution, or an indecent outrage. Are media representations of Third World disasters a kind of Orientalist pornography? Are images of refugees on their way to makeshift hospitals and camps on a permanent loop in our heads? And is it permissible for the vacationing bereaved to appropriate the nearest orphan, as if entitled to a substitute for whomever they’ve misplaced?
There is one clear message in this fierce Tsunami, which applies across the bloody board in a world of collateral damage, where every civilian is also a hostage. It’s a rebuke to the manly conventions of the hero narrative in literature and geopolitics. Of none of the victims of these killer waves could it be said that their character was their fate. Whoever they were, they didn’t deserve it.
Tsunami: The Aftermath
HBO. Part I: Sunday, December 10, 8 p.m. Part II: Sunday, December 17, 8 p.m.