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TV REVIEWS : Pulling the ‘Switch’ in Life or Death

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Network movies that deal with the courage to endure when all seems humanly lost are a staple. So when one comes along that recharges the format--not so much by its subject as by its execution and its tensions--it renews hope for a hoary TV genre.

Case in point is CBS’ “The Switch” (at 9 p.m. Sunday on Channels 2 and 8), “a dramatization based on certain facts.” The opening is particularly effective: As the credits roll on a black screen, we hear the anguished voice of someone yelling for help. We soon see that a young man (Gary Cole) has suffered a broken neck in a motorbike accident.

The remainder of the movie, while charting the clinical ordeal of a person paralyzed from the neck down and dependent on a ventilator to breathe, quickly turns on the prickly theme of the right of the quadriplegic to kill himself. A Georgia court visits his bedside and rules that he does. And then the drama really begins.

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Even more dramatically, the script by T.S. Cook compels a further, personal question: whether you, as a close friend (in this case, a gnarly Atlanta radio talk-show personality strongly played by Craig T. Nelson), could morally muster the courage to help pull the switch. But the fat lady hasn’t sung yet. The movie, which echoes Dalton Trumbo’s limbless soldier in “Johnny Got His Gun,” is more than what it seems. Credit Cole’s refreshingly abrasive performance, director Bobby Roth’s unusual reliance on closeups to heighten tension and a solid score by Tangerine Dream.

Another supporting portrayal, by handicapped actor Richard Redlin, jumps off the screen with a dynamic uppercut, punching home the idea of life over death. Redlin, whirling around in his mechanized chair, excoriates a system that allows a patient to take his life but won’t expend the money to make that life livable: “It’s too damn convenient for the rest of the world to have us killing ourselves. People don’t want to listen. They want their horror stories nice and tidy.”

This story is not tidy but it has the capacity--no small feat for another movie about the maimed--to make you identify with the victim(s) and their reversals of emotions.

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