- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2005

Discovery Channel’s experiment in mixing drama with science drew applause Wednesday night at the Italian Embassy’s reception and screening of the television movie “Pompeii: The Last Day.”

Held at the Italian Embassy, the event offered guests an eye-popping, semifictionalized look at the famous natural disaster from almost 2,000 years ago and also served as a sober reminder of last month’s tsunami and nature’s potential for vast destruction.

One guest called the movie “scary in an entertaining way,” an apt description of the soiree itself — both ominous and lighthearted, thanks in part to the Italian hospitality on display, which included plenty of wine, tasty antipasti and mouth-watering chocolate tiramisu.

The crowd of 400 filled up on risotto and panini before watching an abridged version of the film and its half-hour scientific epilogue. The program, co-produced by Discovery with the BBC, aired nationwide last night and will be repeated tomorrow at 8 and 11 p.m. and again Saturday at 3 p.m.

Among the guests: former FBI and CIA Director William Webster, Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, Dorothy and William McSweeney, Colombian Ambassador Luis Alberto Moreno, Rep.Michael Oxley of Ohio, Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, Lloyd and Ann Hand, Walter and Didi Cutler, Aniko Gaal Schott, and Ina Ginsburg.

Judith A. McHale, Discovery Communication’s chief executive and president, said she hoped the movie’s dramatic bent “makes it accessible to mass audiences.” She also stressed that despite its fictional elements, the science behind the production is rock-solid.

“We don’t want to sacrifice quality, but it’s great to be able to use modern storytelling techniques, added Don Baer, senior executive vice president at Discovery. “The audience requires more of that.”

Mr. Baer said the company plans to produce more science and history shows that also combine an entertainment element.

Although the film’s acting and dialogue between the doomed protagonists aren’t exactly Oscar-worthy — the simply drawn main characters include a courageous gladiator and an odiously greedy businessman — it hardly matters when the star, Mount Vesuvius, is such a credible monster. The movie begins by depicting the residents of Pompeii waking on a mild August day in A.D. 79, unaware that within hours, thousands among them would be incinerated and buried beneath 75 feet of ash and stone. A narrator adds scientific commentary as viewers watch the exploding rock turn to hot foam, shoot 10 miles into the sky and finally roar through the ancient town like a burning tidal wave.

Victoria Bruce, a geologist who narrates the epilogue, was at the screening to answer questions and emphasize the film’s relevance. She warned that scientists have concluded that Vesuvius is very likely to erupt again sometime in the next 100 years, and “Italians know it’s the number one disaster that could happen in their country.”

Nevertheless, about 700,000 people live in the volcano’s dangerous “Red Zone.” This movie, Miss Bruce said, “is an important learning tool.”

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