Meryl has always been prolific in her career, often making one or two movies a year (sometimes even more), but she was really cranking films out in the second half of the 1990s, appearing in no less than seven in the span of just four years, between 1995’s The Bridges of Madison County and 1999’s Music of the Heart. While Before & After disappointed with critics, and Dancing at Lughnasa bombed at the box office, the film she made during this time that probably perplexed the most people was …First Do Harm, to date her one and only made-for-TV movie.
It’s not that Meryl always shied away from television. She appeared in a significant role in the epic 1978 mini-series for NBC, Holocaust, as well the acclaimed 2003 HBO mini-series Angels in America, which won her an Emmy. But for her to appear in a lowly TV-movie, one directed by the mastermind behind comedy spoofs like Airplane and Hot Shots and who had never attempted drama before, seemed a bit of a head-scratcher to people. But don’t let the fact that this isn’t some big Hollywood production deter you; …First Do No Harm is a riveting, first-rate film with excellent performances and a strong message about doing what’s right for your health, no matter the opposition. Sure, it’s a little rough around the edges, with cinematography that can be wanting (too much shaky-cam at times) and a sometimes obnoxious musical score (especially when something really, really bad happens). But if you’re a Meryl fan, you owe it to yourself to seek this one out.
Lori (Meryl) is happily married to Dave (Fred Ward), a truck driver, and is the mother to three children. She seems to have the ideal, stress-free life, when her youngest son Robbie (Seth Atkins) falls in the front yard and goes into a seizure. At the hospital he is diagnosed with epilepsy, and is immediately put on a variety of drugs, including phenobarbital, phenytoin, and carbamazepine. But the drugs only make him worse and worse, to the point that he’s completely bed-ridden and dependent and suffering at least 100 seizures a day. When the doctors can’t seem to solve Robbie’s problem, Lori starts researching epilepsy herself, and discovers a natural remedy and sometimes cure called the ketogenic diet that hasn’t even been brought up by the doctors as a potential option. Despite the misgivings of her doctor (an effectively cold Allison Janney), Lori stops at nothing to put her son on the diet, and stop his epilepsy for good.
Jim Abrahams, known for co-directing Airplane and Top Secret!, as well as directing the two Hot Shots movies, had never come close to stepping over that line between comedy and drama, but …First Do No Harm was a story he simply had to tell. Abrahams’ own son Charlie suffered from severe seizures and was cured after going on the ketogenic diet. Upset that the diet had never been presented as a possible treatment, Abrahams created the Charlie Foundation to promote it, and he directed and produced this film. His strong tie to the story probably had something to do with Meryl coming on board, given that this was a movie produced for ABC TV and not for cinemas; it’s not every day that a ten-time Oscar nominee headlines a project for the small screen. However, while many TV movies of the 1990s are practically unwatchable today—check out She Cried No, with Candace Cameron, for a hilarious example—First Do No Harm is compelling, important entertainment, no matter the medium it was made for.
Abrahams assembled a stellar cast for this project, which includes faces still well known today and faces we haven’t seen much since, but they’re all fantastic. Ward is always a welcome presence in any movie, and he has powerful chemistry with Meryl, playing a man who loves his sick son but rarely knows what to do to make things right with his family. Margo Martindale plays Lori’s compassionate friend Marjean, making this the second of three times she shared the screen with Meryl (they share scenes in Marvin’s Room and August: Osage County). Janney wasn’t that well known in 1997, and this was one of her first substantial roles (later that same year she made impressions in Private Parts and The Ice Storm, on her way to The West Wing). Her performance as the boy’s stone-faced but sympathetic doctor is a standout. As terrific as all the adult actors is Seth Adkins, six years old when he played Robbie. His performance as the epileptic child is wholly convincing all the way through, and he rightly deserved his Young Artist Award for Best Performance in a TV Movie.
Of course, Meryl, who received Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for her performance as Lori, is as good here as she always is, and her stellar work raised the bar for acting in made-for-TV films. While she might have played one too many moms in the 1990s (pretty much everything besides Death Becomes Her), she obviously believed in this project from the get-go and committed to a multi-layered character who does anything she can to save her child, including removing her son from the hospital illegally and standing up to the narrow-minded authority. Scenes of her crying in desperation when she feels she’s out of options rip your heart out, and scenes toward the end when she discovers her son might actually pull through returns your heart to its proper place. She’s in almost every scene of the two-hour movie, and her performance makes an occasionally uneven film an absolute must-see. …First Do No Harm is proof that old TV movies aren’t necessarily lesser experiences than their theatrically released counterparts—but it also doesn’t hurt to have Meryl in the lead.