January 27, 2003 12:00 PM

NBC (Wed., Jan. 29, 8 p.m. ET)

“There’s no such thing as truth; that’s why they call them stories,” says veteran reporter Ben Dansmore (Jeff Goldblum). Not a bad line, but by the end of this TV movie we’ve heard it three times. Voilà—a brand-new cliché.

War Stories, designed to serve as the pilot for a possible series, follows a group of journalists as they cover a fictional conflict between the U.S.-backed government of Uzbekistan and Muslim rebels tied to al Qaeda. The potential is here for a drama that’s timely, exciting, even important. But the script cries out for a rewrite. Recalling the day his former photographer stepped on a land mine, Ben says, “I was flossing bits of him out of my teeth.” Complaining about the dead man’s replacement, Nora Stone (Lake Bell), Ben tells an editor by phone, “If she were any wetter behind the ears, she’d have algae.” Fortunately we’re spared extensive quotations from the presumably colorful copy Ben files for his Baltimore newspaper.

Though Ben flaunts his cynicism, he seems to be the only guy in Central Asia who’s offended by the reality that his sometime lover, magazine correspondent Gayle Phelan (Louise Lombard), proudly sleeps around. Should NBC choose to keep this war effort going, maybe he’ll grow affectionate toward Nora, who displays a troubling lack of professionalism but lays claim to audience sympathy based on her sister’s death in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A wiser course for the network would be to declare peace and pull out.

BOTTOM LINE: Lacks combat readiness

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