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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Gifted Hands,' good heart

Cuba Gooding Jr. portrays Ben Carson, a world-famous brain surgeon in TNT's TV movie, ''Gifted Hands.'' Cuba Gooding Jr. portrays Ben Carson, a world-famous brain surgeon in TNT's TV movie, ''Gifted Hands.'' (DAVID LEE/TNT VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / February 7, 2009
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Someday, someone will make a biopic that isn't structured as a long flashback. That movie will not begin near the end, in triumph or tragedy, then dreamily leapfrog in reverse to where it all began. That movie will not force a big, fat spoiler onto its audience at the get-go.

Until that day, we'll just have to live with one of the genre's most automatic and clichéd of conventions. TNT's "Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story," tonight at 8, immediately tells us that Ben Carson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) will become a world-famous brain surgeon, which takes some much-needed wind out of the story's sails. Since most viewers don't know who Carson is, "Gifted Hands" could have treated his ultimate success as a powerful reveal. Will the boy with learning problems and anger issues make it?

That said, "Gifted Hands" is an average movie biography that manages to be inspiring despite its flaws. During the final minutes, you, like me, may find yourself wiping away a warm tear of joy over the strength of the human spirit and other gushy stuff. But for most of the movie, you, like me, may also feel disappointed by the plot gaps and too-sudden developments. This isn't a portrait of a man so much as a loose sketch, almost a doodle.

Carson is the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children's Center. The movie, based on his 1990 autobiography, returns to his childhood in Detroit, where he is floundering through grammar school, the only black kid in the class. In need of reading glasses, young Ben is teased for being stupid. At home, his overwhelmed single mother, Sonya (Kimberly Elise), is struggling with finances and depression.

Sonya is the hero behind the hero in "Gifted Hands," as she refuses to let Ben feel dumb. She gets him a pair of glasses, she forces him to cut down on TV, and by eighth grade he's soaring through his classes. In one excruciating scene, a white teacher castigates the white students for not outperforming a black kid. But Sonya refuses to let Ben and his brother lose ambition. Young Ben has a few violent outbursts, and the movie lets them disappear unexamined; but he finally makes it to Yale, where he practices his mother's unwavering, stick-to-it attitude.

As Ben from the college years on, Gooding brings a nice calm to his portrayal. The actor, who won a supporting-actor Oscar for "Jerry Maguire," wisely keeps his performance low-key. He shows us the dignity. But the strongest presence in "Gifted Hands" belongs to Elise, who is never merely the flat figure of a strong mother. Sonya deals with her own illiteracy and suicidal feelings, and Elise makes it clear that Sonya's strength has been tested and earned. The movie is about a man who has learned about the brain, but it also serves as a tribute to the generosity of his mother's heart.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

GIFTED HANDS: THE BEN CARSON STORY Starring: Cuba Gooding Jr., Kimberly Elise, Gus Hoffman, Jaishon Fisher

On: TNT

Time: Tonight, 8-10

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