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'Haven' skips gimmicks and settles for history

Sunday, February 11, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

CBS's "Haven" is a safe haven this sweeps month. It's a four-hour miniseries, one of only two this go around, and it doesn't have anything to do with surviving the Australian bush or being tempted on an island or super-sized episodes.

"Haven" skips the gimmicks and simply recounts a compelling piece of American history, a tale most viewers probably don't recall or never knew in the first place.

"Haven" tells the true story of Ruth Gruber (Natasha Richardson), a young Jewish woman who worked as special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior in 1944. She convinced her boss, Harold Ickes (Hal Holbrook), and the War Refugee Board to send her to Europe to escort 1,000 Jewish refugees to America. Grudgingly, they agree, though some refer to it as "the Jew Deal."



When: 9 tonight and Wednesday on CBS.

Starring: Natasha Richardson, Colm Feore


Gruber, an impeccably dressed, tough talking woman who takes no guff, travels to Europe, despite the objections of her parents, played by Martin Landau and Anne Bancroft. Her mother just wants Ruth to settle down and get married, but at age 32, Ruth still smarts from an ill-fated love affair she had with a German Christian when she was a graduate student in Cologne years earlier.

Black and white flashbacks to Ruth's relationship with Johan (Sebastian Roche) are sprinkled throughout "Haven," and, to be honest, it's the least compelling part of the story. But it serves to give viewers background on the attitudes that prevailed in Germany in the years leading up to World War II.

The real-life Gruber, 89, has a brief cameo in the film playing a refugee. "Haven" is based on Gruber's account of her experience in a book of the same name, although she says the portrayal of her romance with Johan in the miniseries is far more passionate than it was in real life.

Tonight's portion of "Haven" primarily deals with the trans-Atlantic crossing that brought Ruth and 982 refugees (rather than the 1,000 she'd been promised) to America. On board the Henry Gibbins, wounded soldiers resent the refugees, whose presence prevents other wounded soldiers from returning to America aboard the ship.

During the crossing, several of the refugee characters come to the fore, but "Haven" fails to adequately introduce them. By the time the second installment airs (9 p.m. Wednesday), you'll recognize most of the characters, but you still may not know their names.

Although "Haven" falls down a bit in developing secondary characters, the whole miniseries becomes far more compelling in night two when the refugees are freed from the confines of the drab ship and sent to Fort Ontario in Oswego, N.Y., where the government declares they must live until the end of the war.

"You'll all be fine, everything will be fine," Gruber tells the refugees. "You're in America now."

Of course, not everything is fine. The refugees are terrified. They've been sent to a place where they're confined behind barbed wire fences guarded by sentries with dogs. Is it any wonder they think they're in a concentration camp?

"Ms. Gruber, you can come and go as you please," one of the refugees remarks. "I guess you're not a dirty Jew like the rest of us."

The town of Oswego sees its new neighbors as a threat, and the people there demonstrate anti-Semitic views similar to some of the Washington officials who object to Gruber's haven.

In time, Gruber finds ways to get the refugees out of Fort Ontario for short periods of time. First it's the children leaving during the day for school, then it's the men getting jobs in a factory. Once the citizens of Oswego get to know the refugees, attitudes become less strident and friendships ultimately develop.

Throughout "Haven," Gruber discovers evidence that the American government actively ignored the plight of the Jews in Europe during the war. It's not a focal point of the story, but a sad undercurrent.

As Gruber, the British Richardson affects an authentic-sounding Brooklyn accent. She's steely in her determination, but remains empathetic to the plight of her charges throughout.

Colm Feore makes an impression as Bruno, a former Berlin vaudevillian, who was once forced to perform by Nazis while interred at a concentration camp. Because of that painful experience, Bruno doesn't enjoy performing anymore, except when he needs to defuse a desperate situation.

William Petersen, star of CBS's "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," has a small but important role as a Treasury Department official who is conflicted over the plight of the refugees.

In addition to a good story, "Haven" benefits from surprisingly high production values. In this era of miniseries that don't seem to have the realistic sheen of, say, "North and South" or "The Winds of War," "Haven" looks authentic to the period. More programs like "Haven" would be a welcome reversal of the miniseries misfortunes that have inflicted recent sweeps periods.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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