Something the Lord Made, a new made-for-TV movie that premieres Sunday night on HBO (9 p.m. ET), is further proof that HBO is fast becoming what the theater used to be for movie actors—a place to hone their chops, or to take a break from the rigors of feature-film production and promotion, or to take risks that might not be available to them in the Hollywood mainstream, where movies must pander to ever vaster audiences to make back their producers' investments. In recent years, A-list actors like Uma Thurman, Laurence Fishburne, Emma Thompson, Jessica Lange, and Don Cheadle have appeared in made-for-HBO projects, and if their gushing testimony in interviews is to be believed, their experiences with the network have been the highlights of their working lives: intimate, creative, and challenging. For viewers, this is good news: If you're willing to spring for the premium cable bill, you can catch top-notch performances by world-class actors without ever leaving your home. The bad news is that those performances often seem strangely adrift inside movies that aren't very good.
Many made-for-HBO movies (last year's sublime Angels in America being one notable exception) have a certain recognizable feeling about them, a high-minded, after-school-special tone that's exemplified by the title of the 1999 Emmy-winning A Lesson Before Dying. (In my case, it was more of a lesson before falling asleep in front of the TV, but whatever.) They tend to be "problem" films that treat subjects of social import and are often either based on true-life stories or adapted from theatrical productions, with varying degrees of earnest creakiness. Miss Evers' Boys (1997) took on the racial scandal of the Tuskegee medical experiments, The Laramie Project (2002) revisited the murderof gay college student Matthew Shepard, and last year's Normal told the story of a rural, middle-aged family man who underwent a sex-change operation.
Like these films, Something the Lord Made, by TV director Joseph Sargent (who won Emmys for both Miss Evers' Boys and A Lesson Before Dying), takes its inspiration from a truly jaw-dropping real-life story. This is the story of Vivien Thomas (played by Mos Def), a young black carpenter from the South who, despite having no formal medical education, helped to develop the tools and techniques that led to the first surgery ever performed on a human heart, which took place at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1944. Alfred Blalock (Alan Rickman) is the powerful white surgeon who takes Thomas on, first as a custodian, then as a lab assistant, and finally as a right-hand man in the operating room. Thomas has the deft hands and surgical intuition to carry out the procedures that Blalock devises in the lab and on the chalkboard.
Of course, this odd division of labor provides ample opportunity for the exploration of racial discrimination in the medical profession, as well as in the world at large. Long after he has become indispensable to Blalock as a lab technician and surgical assistant, Thomas discovers that he has been paid at the level of a custodial worker while he picked up extra cash by bartending at Blalock's parties. When Blalock (whose oversight in promoting his assistant appears to arise less from racism than from sheer cluelessness) intercedes to have Thomas' salary increased to a level appropriate to his rank, Thomas' wife, Clara (Gabrielle Union), says icily, "Thank you, Doctor, for promoting him to what he's already doing." But to its credit, the film never pigeonholes Blalock as an unregenerate racist or Thomas as a passive victim; rather, it shows how the insidious force of institutional racism keeps both master and servant locked into their respective roles.
As the ambitious, volatile Blalock, simultaneously in awe of Thomas' gifts and carelessly exploitive of his labor, Rickman is magisterial. And Mos Def, as Vivien Thomas, is a revelation. He's an actor who plays his cards close to his chest, his soft voice and still body seeming to conceal a roiling inner life. A late scene, in which Thomas must disguise himself as a waiter to sneak into a banquet celebrating the medical breakthrough he helped make possible, stands out as a heartbreaker, as Mos Def's face, seen through a plant behind which he hides, runs through an arpeggio of subtle expressions: the anticipation of being mentioned in Blalock's speech; the slow realization it's not going to happen; then a tiny flicker of pure grief, immediately succeeded by a barely perceptible hardening as he realizes he's been betrayed.
Yet in spite of its fascinating subject matter and bravura acting, much of this movie feels surprisingly shapeless, its rhythms mushy and dull. Like many pictures based on true life, Something the Lord Made seems strangely impatient with its own story, as if eager to check off the boxes and get it over with. The plot spans 30 years, of which vast stretches disappear without the benefit of any narrative device—characters suddenly show up in wheelchairs or toting toddlers, 10 years having passed since their last appearance. The passage of world events like World War II and the social unrest of the late '60s is telegraphed broadly through montages of archival stock footage.
But the real problem with Something the Lord Made may be that surgical innovations, however technically astonishing and socially useful, are just not that interesting to watch. The procedure the two men work on together involves a series of practice operations on dogs, in an attempt to duplicate and fix the heart defect that causes cyanotic, or "blue," babies. As a result, much of the film centers around Blalock and Thomas trying to create cyanotic dogs in the lab, leading to innumerable close-ups of shaved furry tummies and countless opportunities for lines like, "Viv, you did it! The dog's gums are blue!" or my favorite, "This dog is only faintly blue at best." No film whose emotional climax involves watching an infant's face slowly turn from blue to pink as inspirational music swells in the background can fail to tug occasionally at the heartstrings, but Something the Lord Made misses more often than it hits. Rickman and Def, like the exacting craftsmen they play, may have put in countless hours at the HBO operating table, but this dog is only faintly blue at best.