"Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story" is a stirring, very moving look at the obsession of the man who single-handedly tracked down dozens of Nazi criminals and saw them brought to justice - and Ben Kingsley gives a fabulous performance in the title role.
It's the kind of performance that naturally brings up Oscar talk - except that this is a cable TV movie made for HBO, and therefore ineligible for an Academy Award. (But look for Kingsley to pick up an ACE award next year.)The first showing of "Murderers Among Us" is also the first premiere film to be shown in the United States Film Festival in Park City. "Part One" will play at 4 p.m. Saturday in the Egyptian Theater, followed by "Part Two" Sunday.
Both "parts" actually play like separate films, with "Part One" introducing Wiesenthal in a Nazi death camp that has just been liberated by the Americans. Once nursed back to health, Wiesenthal has to be coaxed into participating in the Army's search for Nazi criminals immediately after the war. But soon he catches the fever and becomes a zealot. "Part One" ends with the Army shutting down its operation and Wiesenthal vowing to keep his work going anyway.
"Part Two" plays somewhat like a detective mystery as Wiesenthal reaches his zenith, tracking down Nazis and relentlessly dogging the complex legal system that sometimes would rather ignore them.
Separately, but especially together, the two parts make for enthralling, involving cinema.
Kingsley himself was so taken with this role that when he talked with American reporters in London last October, on a junket for his light comedy "Without a Clue," he couldn't help discussing "Murderers Among Us."
Or the real Simon Wiesenthal, with whom he spent a week and got to know quite well.
Asked if Wiesenthal, now 80, is still pursuing Nazi criminals, Kingsley said simply, "He won't stop.
"Simon himself might disagree, Simon's friends might disagree, but what I found very exciting about the man is he's very angry. And people who meet Simon say, `Oh, but he's such a dear man and he tells all these wonderful Jewish jokes.' But just underneath the surface of this big, strong 80-year-old man is a guerrilla fighter. He really is a fighter. And that's what I love about being with Simon, you can feel it coming off him - terrific waves of anger. And why not?
"To sustain that obsession and that anger for more than 40 years, some people say maybe he's a little crazy too. And maybe. But if he is, it's earned. He has a right to be a little bit crazy."
Of the film, Kingsley likened it to classical drama. "If Wiesenthal did not exist, I think he could have been invented by a great dramatist, because he is the stuff that great drama is made of. He is of the stature of `King Lear.'
"The Wiesenthal film is like a great Jacobian tragedy, which usually ends up with a pile of bodies on the stage. This Wiesenthal tragedy begins with a pile of dead bodies on the stage. But it is, and Simon might take issue with me here over my choice of words, but it is a great revenge tragedy. It's a great revenge play, as were the great plays of Shakespeare's era."
- SATURDAY'S BEST BETS: As listed Friday, "Isadora Duncan," a fine straight-forward account of the dancer's tumultuous life (with the superb short film "Portrait of Imogen"); "Lightning Over Braddock," a lighthearted, autobiographical Tony Buba film; "For All Mankind," a stirring look at America's space program; and "Comic Book Confidential," a delightful history of comic books, are the best among Saturday's documentary competition screenings.
On the dramatic side, "Heathers" is said to be a witty coming-of-age film; "Morgan's Cake" is a very low-budget, semi-improvised film that is most representative of the kind of movies that have traditionally come to the festival; and, at the Sundance screening room, "84 Charlie Mopic," a tense Vietnam drama, are most recommendable.
The United States Film Festival is presented by the Sundance Institute, in cooperation with Utah Film Development. Festival officials suggest you phone ahead to determine if seats are still available for the movies you want to see and to reserve tickets. The festival information line is 322-1700.