'Tsunami': Too much, too soon

Times Staff Writer

"Tsunami: The Aftermath" is a highly responsible disaster movie. I'm not sure whether that recommends it; I suppose it depends on your mood. I didn't exactly put in the DVD with relish. Movies like this, however well-done, about humanitarian disasters that are still fresh as historical events, tend to put you back in the numb state of unbelief you felt the first time around.

Certainly this was why people avoided Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center." Like that film, "Tsunami" is not about re-creating the event itself -- in this case, the devastating wave -- as evincing what happened in the hours and days afterward. And as in "World Trade Center," this is about the survivors of a world suddenly buried under debris and rubble, in the blink of an eye.

Based on "interviews and research," the filmmakers escort their story through interweaving story lines -- the well-meaning but hapless British official (Hugh Bonneville) bogged down in red tape; the local educator (Toni Collette) who's his conscience; the mother (Gina McKee) who is frantically trying to get her injured son home; the local Thai (Samrit Machielsen) watching his village get bulldozed; the couple coming to terms with their missing daughter's death.

They are played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sophie Okonedo; I vacillated between caring deeply about their horrible ordeal and wanting to get back to the only character at a distance from it all -- Nick Fraser, played by Tim Roth.

TV news rushed to the Thai coast in the wake of the disaster, your Diane Sawyers and Anderson Coopers. They're not pictured here. Fraser's a craven journo of the sort that is most familiar in literature -- see Evelyn Waugh's classic "Scoop," proceed straight to Graham Greene's "The Quiet American" -- but sorely lacking on TV, unless you count the Iraq war, which has elevated foreign correspondents even further into a kind of mythic status.

On the news, ever since the invasion, they're vigorous and courageous and wholly devoted to what they do. It's precisely this uncomplicated fiction that makes them so ripe for dramatic treatment.

The breed, as represented by Fraser, is of a type, but an entertaining one; when first we meet him, he's hung over, rousted out of bed in his Bangkok apartment to go cover the unfolding disaster.

Once in Phuket, Fraser and his photographer rent a cool motorbike and promptly go about witnessing how Buddhist monks are burning bodies as part of their religious beliefs; he also ferrets out the scientist who warned of the area's susceptibility to a tsunami of this magnitude and harasses the hotel executive who is making too quick a job of returning the area to resort status.

"You stink," she says, when he shows up, disheveled and sleep-deprived, at her room.

"It has been said," he replies.

In the end, the story gets to him, as it did -- but less so and from afar, received as a disaster on the news, during the holidays -- us.




'Tsunami: The Aftermath'

Where: HBO

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with advisories for coarse language and violence)

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World