Cinema Verite (HBO, Saturday at 9 p.m. ET) is a pure TV movie. It is a movie about television, a fiction about the fabrication of An American Family, the 1973 PBS series that ranks as the father of all reality shows. (Chuck Barris'Dating Game and Alan Funt's Candid Camera qualify as the genre's weird uncles.) As such, it's also about the unmaking of the Louds—about the core meltdown of a nuclear family in Santa Barbara, Calif.—and it plays, for better and worse, like a slightly elevated version of one of those issue-of-the-week telefilms of the old school, with their teen traumas and kitchen-sink melodramas.
If the broad strokes of the narrative do not clue you into the fact that the big theme here is lost innocence, the classic-rock soundtrack certainly will. Steve Winwood ain't done nothing wrong, but he can't find his way home. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini—who wonderfully sketched a docudrama gray area in the Harvey Pekar biopic American Splendor—wrap a media-studies lesson and a standard domestic drama in a self-aware nostalgia trip. The vintage light of Affonso Beato's cinematography (producing sunglow yellow in California and glam grim blue in John Lindsay's New York) helps set a mood of nostalgia for nostalgia, a yearning for youthful earnestness. And between Cinema Verite's fond attention to period detail and the way that documentary-maker Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini) twinkles and sulks at homemaker Pat Loud (Diane Lane), you can get the feeling that you're watching a hybrid of The Ice Storm and the opening pages of The Journalist and the Murderer.
Gilbert is a kind of confidence man preying on the Louds' vanity. First, introduced to Pat by a friend, he ingratiates himself with some chatter about how he wants to observe an American family in the anthropological spirit of Margaret Mead. Like a normal person—like the old idea of normal person—Pat puts up some resistance: "Why would anyone want to participate in such a thing?" Lane's intonation, deliberately stilted, is as deliciously antique as her underhand grip on her cigarette, as if intended to help us sweep ourselves away to simple days of family crises resolved in time for the late news. His explicit appeal to her is that she can help "to educate" America by participating in this "brave new experiment."
The relationship between Gilbert and Pat is the strange, sexy mechanism that makes Cinema Verite work. He tells her that, in pitching the show to WNET, he called her "sultry"—"but I said 'smart' also"—and she lights up. He tells her on the phone that he's been watching her in the dailies and the statement carries a weird erotic charge. He plants the idea that if she walks out on her husband—Bill, played by Tim Robbins as a sub-competent philanderer and instinctive breakfast-table tyrant—she'll be standing up as some kind of Nora Helmer for a Gloria Steinem age, and he might even mean it.
But of course, really, he values her worth by the footage. She's the muse, and he's the master, and the movie is nicely ambiguous about what Gilbert wrought as the inventor of the reality-TV show. He is at once Archimedes in the bathtub, Prometheus giving fire to mortals, Tocqueville anatomizing everyday life, and a dopeman pushing the hard stuff—the attention of a camera crew—in a schoolyard.
We watch as the Louds' oldest son, Lance (Thomas Dekker), moves into the Chelsea Hotel, knots his shirttail at the waist, and begins a singular journey toward becoming a gay icon.We see the other Loud children, characters drawn less sharply, hurry the story through an extended climax featuring (a tad too apocalyptically, perhaps) a fire in the hills and the creamy wailing of Cream's "Tales of Brave Ulysses." And we look on with mixed feeling at a denouement that finds the family united by the condemnatory media frenzy that followed their PBS debut: They go out to dinner and decide to fight back. Then they go on The Dick Cavett Show, where the host points out that it was naive of them to think that TV wouldn't present a distorted portrait. "I don't seeing anything wrong with being naive," Pat counters. "I see something really wrong with being sophisticated." Then they go home and watch themselves on Dick Cavett and raise a toast as the episode ends. "To the Louds and our 14th minute of fame!" cheers Pat, reveling in the moment as only as sophisticate can.