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TV REVIEWS : ‘Way West’ Probes Clash of Expansionism

Like a silver bullet to the heart, Ric Burns’ six-hour epic “The Way West” displays the shocking ferocity and overwhelming tragedy of the 19th-Century clash of white American settlers and Native Americans as a kind of Homeric saga.

By far the most powerful visual depiction ever of westward U.S. expansion, “The Way West” is simply a breathtaking masterpiece of history television.

Even with the close cinematic traits of his sibling, Ken Burns, Ric Burns uses the seemingly familiar combination of vintage (and some indescribably horrifying) photographs, artwork, actor voice-over of original documents and on-camera expert commentary to a very different effect from, for instance, Ken Burn’s “The Civil War.”

“The Way West” builds unbearable tension and excitement by slowing things down. At points, such as the telling of Crazy Horse’s solitary spiritual odyssey on the Plains, or in periodic landscape shots almost too huge for the TV screen to contain, the film becomes a hypnotic trance. One extraordinary image after another, backed by Brian Keane’s indelibly haunting soundtrack, is patiently observed.

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More than the Civil War, Burns and his group of white and Native American writers and historians argue that the battle for supremacy in the West (from the mid-1840s to the early 1890s) was fraught with ambiguities, accidents and tragic errors in judgment.

On one side was the powerful dream of limitless land and opportunity spurred by the idea of “manifest destiny” and the reality of California gold. On the other was an unchanging life directed by the seasons, animal migration and tribal community. Land vs. Mother Earth. Future vs. Now.

It is hard to imagine a more profound battle of wills and, thus, not hard to understand why Burns chooses to emphasize the white-Indian clash over the details of pioneer expansion. Yet every side is heard from, making this a great humanistic document less concerned with tallying PC brownie points than with the range of ideas and passions that rallied the opposite sides.

Constantly shifting from a narrative sweep (empowered by columnist Russell Baker’s magnificent narration) to the minutest details, “The Way West” drives us headlong toward the prolonged battle of the U.S. Army with the Sioux people of the Dakotas and Montana. This leads to blow-by-blow accounts (in Episode Two) of Red Cloud’s trumping of the U.S. Government, George Custer’s fall at Little Big Horn (Episode Three) and the tragic Wounded Knee massacre--in which women and children were mowed down by U.S. troops (Episode Four).

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Unlike most recent TV histories of Native American calamities, Burns’ telling raises history to the personal and poetic. Contemplation, rather than condemnation, is the principle of this monumental achievement.

* “The Way West” airs at 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on KCET-TV Channel 28; 7 p.m on KVCR-TV Channel 24.

‘Robin Cook’s Virus’ Not Very Potent

Of all the possessive movie titles you’d think a best-selling author might just as soon pass on, “Robin Cook’s Virus” ranks right up there. (“Robin Cook’s Gout” can only be a matter of time.) The 1987 Cook book that tonight’s TV movie is based on was actually called “Outbreak” but, obviously, that title was taken by now. Who knew “hot zone” potboilers would get so hot?

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Giving Rene Russo a run for her money as the scientist most likely to be featured in a “Girls of the CDC” photo-op is heroine Nicollette Sheridan, a disease-control rookie assigned to investigate a baffling recurrence of a virus. Soon Sheridan has learned too much and has to go undercover, occasionally semi-disrobing when not dodging murder attempts, a perfectly coiffed outlaw in search of her own pelican brief. But can her current and former doctor/boyfriends (William Devane, Stephen Caffrey) be trusted?

This being a Cook plot (adapted by Roger Young), it can’t be a mere act of God that lets loose the virus; a full-on medical conspiracy must be behind the fatal sniffles, so that some villain can finally be coerced to exclaim, “We’re not killers, we’re doctors! It just got out of hand, that’s all!”

The real conspiracy is blatantly flagged early on when Sheridan shares an innocuous party debate with a character actor (Barry Corbin) on the suspiciously irrelevant subject of . . . HMOs. Huh?

Director Armand Mastroianni (“He Knows You’re Alone”) tries to pump imperiled-woman suspense into the ludicrous scheming, with minimal antidotal effect. Prepare for an outbreak of laughter.

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* “Robin Cook’s Virus” airs tonight at 9 on NBC Channels 4, 36.


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