As a movie, Agnieszka Holland’s four-hour Cold War drama Burning Bush makes for first-rate TV. That’s no swipe. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment that, no matter how sophisticated cable serial storytelling has become, or how episodic the latest superhero flicks, movies remain something different.
Burning Bush trembles with hushed urgency, with officials and apparatchiks desperate to re-sublimate the conflicts that student revolutionaries have laid bare. It’s tense, pained, unfailingly intelligent, and distinguished by the occasional visual flourish: young people rioting in the streets of Prague; a cleaning woman at a government ministry mopping blood off a grand staircase. Yet in surveying its far-flung cast, advancing its layered intrigues, and soaking viewers in the nerved-up confusion of life in Czechoslovakia in 1969 after a Soviet crackdown, Burning Bush feels stamped by the scenes-by-the-pound ethos of even high-end television.
As characters consult about their urgent troubles, the editor cuts from one to the other, and rarely do viewers feel tasked with feeling or thinking about more than one thing at a time. If you don’t need the subtitles, you could watch Burning Bush while folding laundry: Once you think you know where a scene’s going, you probably do, especially the familiar ones in which the husband of a lawyer who is standing up against the Communist Party gets harassed by a disciplinary committee. That’s part of why good TV lends itself to binge-watching in ways that good films don’t: You’re plowing through moments rather than having to process each.
Still, this is excellent TV, originally broadcast as a miniseries by HBO Europe and now showing in two parts at Film Forum. It’s also a bracing history. In ’69, after the Soviets smothered the reform era known as the Prague Spring, a student protester named Jan Palach immolated himself in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, an act of anti-Communist defiance that the party can’t suppress from public knowledge. That’s why they lie about Palach’s intentions — and why crusading lawyer Dagmar Buresova (Tatiana Pauhofova) puts herself and her family in peril to get at the truth.
Holland opens with the burning but then focuses on the aftermath, both personal and public. Palach’s mother (Jaroslava Pokorna), haunted and harassed, slumps into a daze, especially after Parliament bigwig Vilem Novy (Martin Huba) libels her son in a speech to the party, insisting that Palach was an agent of a Western conspiracy. Reports of that speech hit the newspapers, and the family dares to sue for defamation. They’re repped by Buresova, who — in the series’ back half — manages to get the powerful Novy before a judge, even as her witnesses and evidence keep vanishing.
Holland (Europa, Europa) has directed episodes of The Wire and Treme; Burning Bush shares those shows’ richness of character and willingness to flout the expectations of genre, but it’s also less baroque than either. Her story surges ahead, even as its form changes: The first 75 minutes are dominated by Ivan Trojan as a police detective caught between the truth of the case he’s investigating and the will of the party — and even his own countrymen, who say things like, “This is what the Soviets have been waiting for. If we can’t handle it, they’ll dismiss our government and take over.” For all the hurtling plot, and its occasional workaday scenecraft, Burning Bush proves an engrossing historical drama, low-key but in its final moments devastating.