Los Angeles Times | Monday, December 1, 2003

Even the FBI has flaws in 'Line of Fire'


"Line of Fire" might just boast the most patriotic soundstage in Hollywood.

In the lobby of the FBI headquarters set, there's an American flag. On the coffee table in a nearby office, there's another U.S. flag, made of jelly beans. And, proudly framed on the wall of the pimp-gambling czar-mob boss' den is — you guessed it — a red, white and blue painting of the grand old flag.

The villains love their country in "Line of Fire," and, to balance the equation, even the good guys have flaws. The series stars Leslie Hope, Leslie Bibb, Jeffrey D. Sams and Julie Ann Emery as FBI agents operating out of a regional office in Richmond, Va. The series also grants equal time to Richmond's local crime family, which is ruled by a brutal Irish-Jewish gangster (David Paymer), his enforcer (played by real life ex-convict Brian Goodman) and a fresh-out-of-prison recruit (Anson Mount).

Of all the patriotic colors, the most relevant with "Line of Fire" may be blue, since the show premieres at 10 p.m. Tuesday in the "NYPD Blue" time slot. With that venerable series starting to show its age, ABC has high hopes for the new show. While most new hourlong dramas, on any network, are struggling this season, "Life of Fire's" unusual dual storytelling, coupled with its creator's pedigree, marks it as a series with a decent chance.

"Line of Fire" is the first TV series from Rod Lurie, who made his name as a filmmaker to watch three years ago when he wrote and directed "The Contender," but it's hardly the first television show about the FBI. Over the last five decades, "The Untouchables," "The FBI," "The X-Files" and CBS' current hit "Without a Trace" have all offered variations on FBI iconography. What fresh spin did Lurie have in mind for his dramatic series?

"This show is not about being in the FBI," Lurie said, sitting in his office on ABC's Prospect Avenue production lot. "It's about what it means to be in the FBI."

Lurie, surrounded by piles of screenplays from his favorite movies, explained the distinction. "Our stories are compelling, I believe, but we're going to offer more, which is how the investigations are affected by people's personal lives. This kind of thing was done extremely well in the early '70s by Sydney Lumet in 'Serpico' and 'Dog Day Afternoon.' Those films had a certain texture and a certain darkness, where whole personalities were brought into a world of fighting crime."

The bleed-over between private and professional life will provide much of the show's dramatic juice, Lurie said. "What happens if you're an alcoholic and promiscuous? We're going to find out that one of our characters has an incredibly destructive life outside the FBI. What happens if you're a mom with two kids and you wake up in the morning [and] you put the gun on; how does that affect your relationships with your kids and your husband? What does it mean if you're gay and in the FBI? What do all those things mean?"

Projecting a more accessible image would constitute a smart public relations move for the FBI. The bureau suffered a black eye after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when whistle-blower Coleen Rowley, a Minneapolis agent, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that FBI higher-ups had ignored repeated warnings about suspicious activity that might have prevented the attacks.

Sept. 11 figures indirectly into the back story of Bibb's "Line of Fire" character Paige Van Doren, who joins the FBI to avenge the death of her husband after he's killed during the attack on the Pentagon. Larger questions related to the FBI's response to Sept. 11 will also be addressed, Lurie said. "We definitely intend to deal with the controversy surrounding [the Sept. 11 attacks]: What did the FBI know and when did they know it, and did they do a good enough job?"

Lurie, who studied engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and worked as a film critic for Los Angeles Magazine before launching his movie career and subsequently landing a production deal with Touchstone Television, said the initial idea to develop an FBI-themed show originated with Robert Iger, chief executive of the Walt Disney Co. Iger had a friend in the bureau who arranged a meeting between Lurie and FBI officials.

"I told them, 'When you look like heroes in this show, you're really going to look like heroes, but at the same time, regular people have to be able to relate to you. You're not robots. You're human beings.' They seem to understand that nobody in the audience is going to buy a whitewash, and that an honest portrayal of the FBI would show them making mistakes," Lurie said. "They mess up a lot on this show, yet [they] have been wonderfully helpful."

Indeed, Lurie was permitted to shoot the "Line of Fire" pilot at FBI facilities in Quantico, Va. When production shifted to Los Angeles over the summer, agents here volunteered, off the clock, to serve as technical advisors. They've made true believers out of cast members such as Hope, who admitted that she was plenty skeptical about the FBI before auditioning for the role of Special Agent-in-Charge Lisa Cohen.

"I'm basically cynical by nature and suspicious of the government. I went into this very much the lefty liberal girl," said the blue-jeaned actress, best known for playing Jack Bauer's wife-in-distress on "24," as she relaxed at a conference table. "My perception has changed profoundly from doing this show. The men and women from the FBI that we've had the privilege to work with have completely 180'd me. It's much more fluid and open and less regimented than I understood it to be."

Agents have also shared personal stories. "One woman told me she has 75 pairs of 3-inch heels in her closet because she's short and feels more empowered in high heels. She always keeps a pair of flat shoes to change into in her car, but one time she couldn't get to them in time so she had to kick off her heels and run barefoot after this bank robber. I love the idea of this very tough, very together woman with 75 pairs of 3-inch heels in her closet."

If Lurie aims to invest his FBI crime fighters with a humanizing measure of vulnerability, he's equally interested in humanizing the mobsters. "These are both organizations that are fueled by leadership and loyalty and peculiar senses of justices. They both need leadership, they both need guidance.... We wanted to examine these organizations, the FBI and the mob, from the point of view of their professional similarities and also their personal similarities."

Lurie made some unorthodox choices when casting his "Line of Fire" crime family. Goodman became an actor after serving time in prison. The Boston-bred actor still has four bullet holes, including one in his head, as souvenirs from his previous life, and he serves as an informal technical advisor whenever scenes involving shakedowns or beatings are being filmed.

Lurie also deviated from business-as-usual casting when he hired Paymer, best known for his nebbish roles in such films as "Quiz Show," to play crime boss Jonah Malloy. Said Lurie, "Casting David as a mafioso is beyond 'against type' because he's constantly cast as a weak man, a schlemiel. There was not a shortage of actors who wanted to play this role, and they were all heavies. But Jonah Malloy is a complex character, and I needed David to bring humanity to the role. Jonah is an intellectual mafioso, a dispatcher of violence who's very scary in his dispassion. He's clearly a sociopath, but he's also somewhat of a family man who has a tremendous sense of loyalty to his core unit."

Nebbish mobsters? FBI agents as just plain folks? Peel away the G-man propriety and that's exactly what Lurie found in the last few months: "It took a while for them to start lightening up. At first, they'd come to the set on blistering hot days with their ties up to their neck and their suits on. We told them to chill out a little bit until eventually, they started showing up in shorts. The FBI themselves have always been perfecting this image, that they're a bunch of squares, and they're really not. And they won't be seen that way, hopefully, after this show."

Hugh Hart is a regular contributor to Calendar