TV REVIEWS : A First-Rate Cast Wasted in 'Blackbird'

"Down Came a Blackbird," a two-hour Showtime drama chronicling a group of survivors of politically motivated torture, would seem to have enough going for it to result in fascinating entertainment.

Start with a great cast. Laura Dern plays Helen McNulty, a young reporter relying on pills and alcohol to relieve her memories of a devastatingly traumatic event. Vanessa Redgrave is Anna Lenke, a World War II Gestapo victim who runs a clinic for survivors. And Raul Julia, in his last film appearance before his death, plays Tomas Romero, a mysterious patient at the clinic.

Add a story with some distinct possibilities for both emotional drama and physical action. As the picture opens, McNulty and her boyfriend (portrayed by Jay O. Sanders) are in a Latin American country covering a violent government action against demonstrators. Both are arrested, and they are taken away in separate cars.

The story cuts forward a year. McNulty is back in the United States, suffering the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress disorder. She persuades her editor to assign her to do a report on Lenke's recovery methods, hoping she will, at the same time, gain insight into her own condition.

Accepted in the program as a patient, she meets Romero. As their relationship blossoms, she begins to deal with her repressed memories of what happened after she was taken to the Latin American prison.

But neither a talented company of actors nor a potentially important story can overcome a lugubrious, perplexing screenplay (by Kevin Droney) and direction (by Jonathan Sanger) that lack focus and bearing. Some scenes drag on interminably for no apparent reason. Others are truncated to the point of puzzlement. A murky tone of depression is ever present.

By the time the picture reaches its dramatic climax, the dark secret that is revealed doesn't seem like much of a secret at all.

* "Down Came a Blackbird" premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on Showtime.

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