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Home Box Office has been one of the most prolific producers of quality made for television movies and mini-series over the last few years. Where once it seemed a step down for actors and directors to do any television work, after productions like Band of Brothers, From the Earth to the Moon and the recent Angels in America, now top name talent flock to the cable channel for the ability to produce work for them. In 2004, one of the channel’s most widely honoured (but little known) films was Something the Lord Made.

Something the Lord Made
Beginning in Nashville Tennessee in 1930, the film follows the somewhat strange and rocky relationship of Dr. Alfred Blalock, a surgeon who specializes in pushing the established boundaries of accepted medicine, and Vivian Thomas, a poor black carpenter who is hired by Dr. Blalock to perform menial duties around the office, but who proves himself to be invaluable to Blalock’s practice.

After a few days of working with Vivian, it becomes apparent to Dr. Blalock that Vivian is not like the other helpers he has had. Vivian is very adept with his hands, and he understands and even speaks the medical language (although he has had no formal medical training). Working together for many years the two work hard to develop a new process for dealing with traumatic shock, which proves invaluable to the United States military as it saves countless lives on the front lines of World War II.

The success of the procedure gets Blalock appointed to chief of surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the most prestigious hospital in all of America. Blalock takes Thomas with him, but finds that the relationship they had formed while down south in Tennessee is not viewed the same way in Washington, D.C. When Blalock and Thomas walk through the doors of the hospital for the first time, Thomas is told he must enter through the back door with the rest of the workers. Later, Vivian is instructed to buy coffee for a white doctor, and when he refuses, he is berated by him. Later, questions arise when Thomas dons a white doctor’s coat, even though he is not a doctor.

All of the tension does not flow one way. While at Johns Hopkins, Thomas learns that he is paid the salary of a lower worker, even though he is doing the job of a lab technician. When Dr. Blalock doesn’t seem to take his protest seriously, Thomas walks out on the doctor at a crucial stage in their research. Blalock later is able to get Vivian the raise and title he deserves.

Something the Lord Made
The greatest source of friction between the two comes several years into their work at Johns Hopkins. The pair has been working to solve the mystery of the ‘blue baby’ syndrome. This malady is caused when blood flowing through the body is not being properly oxygenated, causing the infant’s skin to turn a bluish tone. This condition almost always eventually ended in the child’s death. Working with a paediatric doctor at the hospital, Blalock and Thomas first attempt to recreate the condition in a dog, and then work to try and correct the condition. One of their problems is that their theory for resolving the issue involves doing surgery directly on the heart, something that has long been held as being taboo.

When they finally do recreate the condition in the animal, they then work to bypass the blood back to the lungs for proper oxygenation. They find that their first attempt to correct the problem, while at first seems successful, results in the death of the dog. It takes both of them to finally figure out what they had done wrong and when they retry to procedure, they find that it does solve the condition. Now they must convince the parents of a little girl suffering from the condition to let them perform surgery on her heart. They agree, and yet due to the biases of the day, Thomas is not allowed to participate or even view the procedure, even though it had been his hands and his guidance that had allowed Blalock to successfully perform the surgery on the dog. As the surgery finally begins, Blalock finds he cannot perform the procedure without Thomas, and, against the protestations of his fellow doctors, brings Thomas into the operating room to oversee the operation, which is successful, changing the course of surgical medicine forever.

Accolades rain down on Blalock and the surgical team, but fail to ever include Thomas. Even Blalock, when speaking of the procedure, offers no credit to Thomas; this is something that does not sit well with Vivian. Thomas again leaves, only to return shortly afterward because he misses the work, making it clear that it is due to no allegiance to Blalock. Over the course of the next fifteen years, society changes, and laws are enacted to guarantee racial equality. Thomas finds himself promoted to Director of Laboratories at Johns Hopkins. In a final scene between Blalock and Thomas, the doctor tries his hardest to express his regrets for not giving Vivian his due credit for all of his success. Blalock dies soon afterward, and the film ends with Thomas being awarded an honorary doctorate and having his portrait hung in the rotunda of the hospital, something done only a handful of times.

Something the Lord Made
The acting in the film is top notch. Blalock is played by Alan Rickman (of Harry Potter fame). Rickman plays the doctor as a very emotionally charged individual who knows what he wants and is not afraid to go after what he feels he needs to achieve his goals, regardless of what others think. He has no qualms about being a trailblazer, either in who he works with or what he thinks is possible in the world of medicine. Yet, for all of that, he cannot bring himself to publicly give the credit to Thomas that Vivian truly deserves.

In contrast, Thomas is portrayed by Mos Def  (from The Italian Job) as a man who is also determined to do what he needs to in order to achieve his goals, but he does not consider himself a revolutionary. His brother is such a person, involved in the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court trial which mandated equal pay regardless of race. Although soft spoken and patient, Thomas does rebel in his own way, and manages to get what he deserves after a long wait.

The film won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Made for Television Movie. It is not difficult to see why. Phenomenal acting of an outstanding script which involves an emotionally charged premise is a winning combination and results in a very fine film.

Sporting a 16:9 widescreen presentation, the video transfer is a very good one. There is little grain to be found, and there is no artefacting noticeable. One thing that struck me was the choice of colours used during the different scenes. Mostly muted colours are to be found, reminiscent of the times (the 1930s were the time of the Great Depression in America), and most of the colour schemes are dulled reflecting not only the relationships between the main characters, but also the mood of the country at the time. When the scene shifts to Washington, D.C. and Johns Hopkins Hospital, we are treated to the light blues, greys and whites of institutional colours which permeate to this day. Overall, this is a fine use of the colour template to help convey more than just the scenery.

Something the Lord Made
With a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track, the film sounds just fine. There is little that the 5.1 can really be utilized for throughout the film. Since the story is basically driven by the script, there are not huge fire-fights that might give your system a workout, or any big special effects that might make you sit up and say, ‘Wow!’ as played out through the channels. Instead, much as with the acting and the video, we are given a decent, almost seemingly played down audio presentation. We are never knocked off our seats by it, but neither do we have to struggle to hear what is going on. A very acceptable presentation.

Not a lot of supplemental material to be found here, and, as this is a made for cable movie, one wouldn't really expect much.  What is included is of some interest, however. In addition to a commentary, which I’ll discuss in a moment, there is an extra entitled the ‘Making History’ slide show, which are several photos of the actual individuals with some description of what is in each photo. It provides an interesting comparison to the roles as portrayed by Rickman and Def.

A very short featurette about the making of the film follows next. Clocking in at less than four minutes, I can only guess that this was made by the cable channel as filler between the airings of movies. It really adds very little in the way of information about the film and is mostly a ‘fluff’ piece.

The commentary on the disc fell somewhat short for me. Featuring the producers, the writer and the director, it is rather stale and lacks what would seem to be any real excitement about the work. Not that they aren’t informative at certain times, but seeing as how there are the four, there appears a considerable amount of silence during the commentary. The do the requisite gushing over the portrayals and several of the scenes, but at no time do they seem to display the extra ‘something’ coming across as enthusiasm about the work. Simply put, the commentary comes across much like the acting: understated. Unfortunately, while it worked for me on the portrayals in the film, the commentary left me wanting more.

Something the Lord Made
The work itself is certainly one of the better made for television films to come along in a while, and I believe it could have been a critical success if done for the large screen as well. Rickman and Def put forth fine performances and the direction under Joseph Sargent hits all the right notes. You could do much worse than adding Something the Lord Made to your collection. I believe that this film will continue to grow in stature as time passes.