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Hostile Witness Reviews

IN THE HANDS OF THE ENEMY is a 1988 made-for-cable adaptation of what is virtually a one-set stage play, a bit of conjectural whimsy imagining what might happen if an Arab terrorist were kidnapped by the Marines, a la Panama's Noriega, and put on trial for abetting terrorism--only to mount the defense that his actions were legitimate acts of war. Salima Ajami (Robert Davi) is an infamous Arab terrorist who masterminds a deadly cafe bombing in Barcelona. A muscle-flexing US government seizes him in West Beirut, imprisons him in a tiny cell at the Marine base in Quantico, Virginia, and prepares to mount a show trial under the leadership of Justice Department prosecutor and low-key family man Jim Delmore (Sam Waterston). The ACLU, entrusted with the thankless task of retaining counsel, approaches Penn professor and legal scholar Sy Resnick (Ron Leibman), a legendary showboat and esteemed member of the bar now only arguing appellate decisions--a role obviously based on attorney Alan Dershowitz, who served as special legal adviser to the film. In short order, fundraisers for the state of Israel are pressuring Resnick to drop the case, while Ajami proclaims himself a prisoner of war and rules out a psychiatric defense. The prosecution case appears open-and-shut. Charging murder, pure and simple, they easily establish the circumstances and barbarity of the crime--for which Ajami has already taken credit in a videotaped message to the world--and summarily rest, effectively placing the burden of proof (and the balance of screen time) on the defense. Intrigued with the legal issues, as well as the caliber of the legal gamesmanship, Resnick mounts an articulate and impassioned case for Ajami's actions as acts of self-defense, committed in wartime, bolstering his arguments with ample helpings of military law, Nuremberg revisionism, and the history of US imperialism worldwide. Meanwhile, an American businessman is taken hostage by Ajami's cohorts, and they threaten to kill him if Ajami is convicted. In a bold publicity move, Resnick calls a press conference and offers to trade himself for the hostage. But in the end, his arguments fail to sway the jury, and Ajami is found guilty. With Waterston showing customary restraint throughout, Leibman easily dominates the courtroom, displaying some of the same unctuous charm he employed in playing Roy Cohn in the Broadway production of Angels in America. The screenplay is literate and well-informed--credit is due for its unusually frank account of US covert interventionism--but it too often resorts to courtroom-style manipulation of the viewer, asking what amounts to leading questions, only to ridicule the audience with its own gullibility. The small screen generally works well as a medium for the presentation of courtroom advocacy--e.g., Robert Altman's THE CAINE MUTINY COURT MARTIAL, or the real-life trials of the Menendez Brothers and O.J. Simpson--and IN THE HANDS OF THE ENEMY is no exception, rising above staple cable fare in almost every way. (Adult situations.)