HBO's So-So Tsunami

The opening sequence of "Tsunami: The Aftermath," HBO's noble new mini-series about the minutes, hours and days following the December 2004 disaster in south Asia, has the bewildering power of a nightmare. A scuba diver in the open ocean bursts to the surface. She finds that she's alone, and all is silent. Yards away, she spots someone floating peculiarly in the water, and cries out when she realizes that he's dead. Then she sees another body, and then another one. What in God's name has happened? The filmmaking in these early moments is beautiful and menacing, with each successive shot revealing some horrible new disturbance in the natural order of things. Eventually the woman, Susie (Sophie Okonedo), finds her tour boat, and she returns to shore with the other divers, where they discover that their massive, idyllic resort has been smashed to bits. Everyone races onto solid ground, searching in a panic for the loved ones who stayed behind. That includes Susie's husband and 6-year-old daughter, who were at the hotel when it happened, whatever "it" was, and now are gone.

"Tsunami: The Aftermath," which airs in two parts, on Dec. 10 and 11, comes just three months after Spike Lee's career-defining "When the Levees Broke," a four-part documentary about Hurricane Katrina, which means that this new film, directed by Bharat Nalluri and written by Abi Morgan, marks HBO's second mini-series of the fall season about a deadly natural disaster. The proximity of the two films, and the scale of the ruin they cover, raises the question of whether documentary or narrative fiction is the more suitable form for telling such stories. Can a made-up tale, even one rooted in fact, bring viewers as close to the truth as the real thing? "Tsunami" is fictional—it is based on accounts from actual survivors—and in those tense opening scenes, the advantages of fiction help it achieve a level of tactile, you-are-there horror that documentary isn't equipped to create. You can only do so much, after all, with talking heads, still photographs and amateur video.

Unfortunately, the trappings of fiction quickly catch up with "Tsunami." In documentary, a subject's authenticity is never in doubt. In fictional drama, characters have to be conjured up and fleshed out, and if care isn't taken, the whole enterprise collapses. Immediately after "Tsunami's" harrowing opening scenes, the film sends us back in time one day, preflood, and we meet everyone in the film's sprawling orbit. This is where the trouble starts, because the cast seems carefully, and unnaturally, plucked from some crude ethnic buffet. There's a loving young black family; a bickering white family; a callous pair of muckraking journalists; a genial, ill-prepared British ambassador; a hectoring, lefty do-gooder, and last but certainly not least, a quiet, true-hearted, impoverished Thai hotel employee who brings home leftovers from work to his aging grandmother. In other words, characters that any of us could have thought up without doing a scrap of research. The people in Morgan's script might indeed be based on real people, but they feel phony. Every other aspect of "Tsunami" strives for, and often achieves, a grim verisimilitude. The characters, though, are too vague and obvious, and it's hard to be moved by a film when you're rolling your eyes at it.

As usual with HBO, which funded the mini-series in concert with the BBC, "Tsunami" is a classy production. The international cast is packed with art-house cinema talent, including a trio of Oscar nominees—Okonedo (for "Hotel Rwanda"), Toni Collette (for "The Sixth Sense") and Tim Roth (for "Rob Roy")—as well as rising star Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Inside Man," the upcoming "Children of Men"). Okonedo and Ejiofor are especially memorable as a young couple searching in vain for their lost daughter; as the days slip away and reality sets in, their eyes go blank and their bodies sag. There's not a false note in their performances. And while the characters may be too thin, "Tsunami"'s various story lines resist cheap uplift. Just as it was in reality, miraculous reunions are few and the relief effort moves too slowly. It's a credit to Morgan's script that the film is so unflinching, but all the guts in the world doesn't necessarily make it great television.

"Tsunami" also has one serious lapse, and it's an ironic one for a film that lightly admonishes Western viewers for neglecting the hardest hit of all, the Thai villagers who lost their lives, families and homes to the sea. The saintly hotel employee, named Than and played by Samrit Machielsen, is the only major Thai character in the film, and he's saddled with a flimsy, almost condescending character, plus all of the movie's clumsiest lines (e.g., "I must get back to my village. My people need me"). Than's story barely holds the filmmakers' attention, so it's not long before he's lost ours. "Tsunami" is crafted, in part, to be an apologia for Western solipsism, but the film ends up reinforcing it. It doesn't help that, according to news reports, the residents of Khao Lak, an oceanfront region in Thailand that was devastated by the tsunami and served as the film's chief location, felt affronted by the presence of HBO and the BBC so soon after the disaster. "Tsunami" tries to give us a window into a world we ignored, but the filmmakers failed to open the window wide enough.

Much of the power of Spike Lee's Katrina documentary arose from his skill at finding the humanity in each of his subjects, no matter who they were the day before the storm—black or white, rich or poor. By the time "When the Levees Broke" aired, many of us surely felt we'd heard it all before; Lee managed to find ordinary folks who proved to us that we couldn't be more wrong. "Tsunami: The Aftermath" is blessed with similarly noble intentions and even more startling imagery. What it's missing is some real people.