Cuba Gooding Jr. in the right "Hands"

Wed Feb 4, 2009 10:14pm EST
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By Ray Richmond

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - TNT's "Gifted Hands" is one of those longform projects that has Emmy written all over it. It boasts near-flawless direction from Thomas Carter, a vivid teleplay adaptation by John Pielmeier and uniformly magnificent performances, particularly from star Cuba Gooding Jr., who puts himself back onto the Hollywood map here in a way he hasn't since his Oscar-winning turn in 1996's "Jerry Maguire."

Gooding portrays the real-life world-renowned brain surgeon Benjamin Carson, director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children's Center and author of a best-selling 1990 autobiography. It's taken nearly two decades to get Carson's inspiring story to the screen, but Gooding does him more than proud with a portrayal at once sensitively wrought and quietly moving. In lesser hands (if you'll pardon the pun), this biopic could easily have drifted off into maudlin sap, but Gooding keeps the character of Carson centered and human and the film honoring him wise and surprisingly graphic. (The surgical procedures are showcased in all of their bloody glory, but not so much as to cross the line to gratuitousness.)

Affixed with the "Johnson & Johnson Spotlight" imprint a la the classic 2002 multiple Emmy winner "Door to Door" (and produced by members of the same team), "Gifted Hands" follows Carson's inspirational tale from his childhood as a pudgy and angry kid struggling in Detroit's inner-city projects through his rise to the top of the medical profession. Early on, we see Carson as a kid wracked with self-doubt and confusion in a household with a mother whose education stalled in third grade and a father who chose narcotics over the family. But his mother, Sonya (a terrific rendering from Kimberly Elise), is shown early on to have been a proud, devoted and tireless dispenser of tough love to her two boys, repeatedly drilling home the point that there was nothing they couldn't achieve if they used their brain. We see that her own brain, however, turned on her, resulting in bouts of clinical depression she struggled to control.

The film is framed by what proved to be Carson's most challenging and celebrated case during the early years of his career in the mid-1980s: the separation of conjoined twins attached at the back of the head. The dramatization of that first successful operation in which both infants survived is moving yet commendably understated. The music doesn't crest to a climax so much as sustain what is shown to be a modern-day medical miracle, one of many that Dr. Carson would cultivate.

If there is a criticism one can level at "Gifted Hands," it's the utter sainthood that envelops the surgeon as he goes about his daily heroics during the film's final third. A modest and unassuming portrait this is not, despite Gooding's efforts to bring the character back down to Earth. Of course, a guy who is entrusted with pulling off regular feats of wonder with small children had better possess a healthy ego, or he's not going to get too far in the world of delicate pediatric neurosurgery, so the lack of authentic humility is perhaps inevitable for a doctor who's received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But the film is so good that a little immodesty is not only acceptable but understandable. And after years of struggle to cash in artistically on his Academy Award notoriety, Gooding is back in the ballgame. Show him the money!

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter