HBO (Wednesday, June 20, 8 p.m. ET)
This video bio of Andrei Sakharov, starring Jason Robards and Glenda Jackson, is scheduled to run this September. But last month, when the Soviet dissident was reportedly near death, HBO wisely decided to give the show one June airing as well. Sakharov is serious TV, the sort usually found on PBS, the sort HBO can run since it does not feed on ratings. It is thus the type of show the networks normally wouldn’t go near. But now the networks may well be jealous of HBO’s timely two-hour movie. They should be.
The show begins with a bit of background on the man. One sinister Soviet is showing films of Sakharov to other sinister Soviets—KGB, you presume, but are never told. It’s merely a quick way to cover his biography: Andrei Sakharov, born in 1921, is well known as the Soviet Union’s greatest physicist. He developed their hydrogen bomb. Now he is demonstrating publicly for individual rights and is beginning to worry the government.
It’s 1968 in Moscow. Sakharov (Robards) and his first wife live a privileged life, able to get good concert seats at the last minute by dropping the Sakharov name. But he is making trouble, signing petitions for imprisoned dissidents. “If I were in a prison camp,” he tells his worrying wife (who died not long thereafter), “wouldn’t you want people signing petitions for me?” He is also filling pages of a notebook labeled “Thoughts.” One of them: “Nothing can stop a nuclear attack from succeeding once it is launched.” His trusted secretary snitches on him to the boss, who lectures Sakharov: “You are the greatest physicist in the world. You have better things to do with your life.” He persists and loses his job and his friends. But he makes new friends: dissidents all. One of them is Dr. Yelena Bonner (Glenda Jackson), who becomes his ally, his friend and then his second wife. Their courtship is touching, even cute, and a nice human contrast to the politics around them.
Sakharov gives the dissidents unprecedented victories, using his influence to get a writer freed and to get commuted the death sentences of would-be refugees who were convicted of treason. He helps establish an organization that monitors human rights violations. And he comes up against rules of Soviet life that make catch-22 seem elementary. For example, one dissident friend explains why so many of their number are sentenced to insane asylums: “To act against the Soviet state,” he says, “you must be either a criminal or insane. We are not criminals, therefore….” When Bonner’s daughter is kicked out of college because of her parents’ activities, she and Sakharov challenge the dean, who says: “All the Arab students report that she’s very argumentative in her classes.” She retorts: “But, Dean, there are no Arab students in my classes.” And he replies: “See what I mean? Argumentative.”
Sakharov and Bonner continue to stir mud until they send her children and grandchildren to America (where they helped in this production). That’s when the film ends. Later Sakharov was exiled to Gorky, and Yelena joined him. He has waged a hunger strike so that his wife might leave the U.S.S.R. for medical treatment.
As it turns out, Sakharov is not really a drama, for there is no beginning or end; nor is it a biography, for its scope and time are too limited. Instead, it is a portrait or, to borrow JFK’s title, a profile in courage. Because that is all it tries to be (and at that it succeeds quite well), we do not see the blemishes that would make this Sakharov more complete. We don’t really hear a father of the H-bomb note the irony of his stand for arms control. We don’t hear him complain, even a little, about losing his luxury apartment. Such bits of characterization could detract from the issues at hand; they probably are better left out. But without them, without that third dimension, Sakharov—or any living hero—comes off slightly saintly and not quite full of life. That means, too, that Robards never gets to strut his stuff. He’s too stiff. It is Jackson who steals this show, especially in one stirring speech during a trial. Unlike Robards, she is not bound up by the lore surrounding her character. She makes Yelena Bonner the discovered hero in this tale.
Sakharov is intelligently written, well-acted and compelling. It is everything it could be today. For while the fight still goes on, this story is news, not history.