The Pentagon Wars (Saturday, February 28; 8 to 9:30 p.m.; HBO) wavers uncertainly between broad satire and savage exposé. From the nonfiction book by retired Air Force colonel James G. Burton, Jamie Malanowski and Martyn Burke have confected a teleplay about $14 billion of overspending on the design, development, and production of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle – a sort of troop-transport supertank – and seventeen years of test-rigging to con us into thinking it wasn’t a death trap for anybody who happened to be inside when it came under enemy fire. At this metastasis of genuine scandal, comic styles, and military-industrial bungling and cover-up, we don’t know whether to laugh or rage.
Part of the confusion is the fault of Richard Benjamin, who directs and also stars himself as Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan’s less-than-humorous secretary of Defense. Part is the fault of Kelsey Grammer, who insists on playing the perfidious Army general Partridge as an odd amalgam of Orson Welles and Captain Queeg, while Cary Elwes plays Colonel Burton as a straight-arrow whistle-blower transferred to Alaska for asking too many questions and Olympia Dukakis plays the chairperson of the House Armed Services Committee with an incredulity bordering on the comatose. There is a Deep Throat, afraid to go public with what he knows about the BFV but disgusted enough to alert Burton to fuel tanks filled with water, and ammunition filled with sand.
On the serious side, Israelis rewrite all the specs before they buy these lethal duds. On the burlesque side, one battlefield test turns sheep into instant mutton. And for Frank Capra purposes, the soldiers on the test range will conspire with Burton and sabotage Partridge, just in time for the Bradley to roll off to duty in the Gulf War as something more than a snowmobile with cleats.