NEW YORK -- Recent history comes to life on PBS beginning Monday in 'Concealed Enemies,' a miniseries about the Alger Hiss-Whittaker Chambers spy case that was investigated in 1948 by a young Congressman named Richard Nixon.
Parts 1 and 2 of the 'American Playhouse' presentation air 9-11 p.m. EDT on Monday. Parts 3 and 4 air 9-10 p.m. EDT on Tuesday and Wednesday. (Check local listings).
The cast of 97 is headed brilliantly by Edward Herrmann ('Eleanor and Franklin') as Hiss, John Harkins ('Absence of Malice') as Chambers and Peter Riegert ('Local Hero') as Nixon.
Besides providing a detailed and lively look at an important episode in American history, 'Concealed Enemies' also is a beautifully filmed period piece -- from the vintage cars to the veiled hats and white-shirts-only for men.
At one point in the series, the portly Chambers tells the House Un-American Activities Committee, 'I do not hate Mr. Hiss. We were close friends, but we are caught in a tragedy of history.'
The words seem to echo through the rest of the film.
The script by Hugh Whitemore ('All Creatures Great and Small,' 'Elizabeth R') makes villains out of none of the characters. Viewers are actually allowed to make up their own minds about the case without having any one point of view hammered into their heads.
Of all the miniseries that unfortunately are competiting for viewers at the beginning of next week -- the lusty 'Last Days of Pompeii' on ABC and the action-packed 'V: The Final Battle' on NBC - this one actually is the most engaging.
At least try see it in the rerun!
The series opens with Chambers, an admitted ex-Communist and senior editor of Time magazine, telling the House Un-American Activities Committee that Hiss spied for the American Communist Party when he worked at the State Department in the 1930s.
Chambers repeats his charges on the radio program 'Meet the Press' and Hiss, who in 1948 was president of the prestigious Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, files a libel suit.
Hiss's action backfires.
Instead of clearing his name, the pre-trial investigation launched as a result of the suit leads to the discovery of the 'pumpkin papers,' old film of documents that Chambers turns over to Nixon to prove his charges, and a massive search for the Hisses' old Woodstock typewriter. Investigators believe the typewriter is the key to linking the Hisses to the re-typed stolen documents.
Although viewers familiar with the case know that Hiss eventually served 44 months in prison on two perjury convictions there is much suspense in the drama as the story unfolds -- the search for the typewriter, the married Chambers' statement that he had been a homosexual, Chambers' attempted suicide.
Chambers died in 1961.
Hiss, who still is trying to clear his name, spoke with Herrmann about his part several times, Riegert said.
Riegert did not speak with Nixon.
'I really didn't want to talk to him,' the actor said in a soft New York accent. 'He has such a seductive personality, I was afraid I might pick up on the contemporary man -- 35 years after.'
Riegert shaved his hair to raise his hairline for the part, but he said he did not try to imitate Nixon's accent or the mannerisms that are so familiar to Americans.
'You have to get over the temptation to think that the visual is the character.'
Riegert said he was surprised when he was asked to do the Nixon part.
'He was the last person I thought I'd ever play, but it was such a challenge to play a contemporary figure.'
No great fan of Nixon, Riegert said he liked the character while he was playing him.
'You can look at a character from a lot of perspectives. A lot of people view Nixon as a hero. It's not an accident that's he been on television the past month.
'Anyway, I didn't have to go to sleep liking the guy.'