Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story -- TV Review
Gooding portrays 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 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 into 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), "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 brains. 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 medical miracle, one of many 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 struggling to cash in artistically on his Academy Award notoriety, Gooding is back in the ballgame. Show him the money!
Airdate: 8-10 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 7 (TNT)
Production: Sony Pictures Studios
Executive producers: Margaret Loesch, Dan Angel, Bruce Stein, Thomas Carter
Co-executive producers: Lester Parris, Lennox Parris
Producer: David Rosemont
Director: Thomas Carter
Writer: John Pielmeier
Director of photography: John Aronson
Production designer: Warren Young
Costume designer: Karyn Wagner
Editor: Peter Berger
Music: Martin Davich
Casting: Denise Chamian Casting
Cast: Cuba Gooding Jr., Kimberly Elise, Aunjanue Ellis, Gus Hoffman, Jaishon Fisher