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TV MOVIE REVIEW : Lackluster Script Hampers ‘My Father, My Son’

Times Television Critic

The year is 1968.

Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr. has ordered the spraying of the Agent Orange herbicide to defoliate the Ca Mau Peninsula in South Vietnam, where his son, Lt. Elmo Zumwalt III, will soon command one of the patrol boats that run the river in search of Viet Cong.

Fifteen years later, the younger Zumwalt learns that he has two types of cancer, which father and son both think may be linked to Agent Orange exposure. They believe that the chemical defoliant may also be responsible for the birth defect in Elmo Zumwalt III’s young son.

A father whose action may have led to his son’s potentially lethal cancer and his grandson’s birth defect?

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Both men examined the subject in a 1986 book that has become the basis for the CBS drama, “My Father, My Son,” airing at 9 p.m. Sunday on Channels 2 and 8.

Keith Carradine and Karl Malden give nice performances as the son and father whose lives become intertwined by an oddity of fate. If only their efforts were rewarded by a production less lackluster and perfunctory.

Although the family’s support of the courageous Elmo Zumwalt III during his time of deep distress is an inspiring element, it’s his fate-inspired relationship with his father that provides uniqueness.

Yet only superficially do scriptwriters David Seidler and Jacqueline Feather explore the incredible ironic twist that threaded the lives of the two Zumwalts years after the admiral’s order to defoliate the crops and jungle that were concealing the enemy in South Vietnam. (Aftereffects of the chemical may have ruined the health of an entire generation of Vietnam veterans, although that has not been proved.)

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Less surprising is their failure to examine the outrage reflected in a class-action suit by at least 250,000 veterans against the chemical companies that manufactured Agent Orange. After all, as the TV drama story notes, Elmo Zumwalt III has refused to join in the suit and both he and his father argue that even at its very worst, Agent Orange saved more American lives than it hurt.

The older Zumwalt recalls here that before ordering the use of Agent Orange, he received assurances from the Pentagon that it would not harm humans. “I asked the right questions,” he says, “but I got the wrong answers.”

No anger. It’s left at that.

With these omissions, “My Father, My Son” becomes merely another triumph-over-affliction story, moving to be sure and lifted above the norm by its admirable candor about cancer, but essentially a familiar sad refrain.

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