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TELEVISION REVIEW

HBO's history lesson on Sioux tragedy is tasteful but plain

HBO's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," which premieres Sunday night at 9, arrives like an invitation post marked days after the party date. Well-intentioned, but kind of lame.

It was back in 1970 that Dee Brown's bestseller detailed the Wounded Knee massacre of the Lakota Sioux in 1890 South Dakota, sparking awareness of both the injustices to Native Americans and the misrepresentations of the cowboy-movie view of frontier life. And for decades now, we've seen so many revelatory movies about the cruelties of American expansionism westward that the word "revisionist" has almost become unnecessary.

Of course the mistreatment of Native Americans should be por trayed again and again, in better and different ways, so that we never forget. And the movie does have some new kick, as a timely portrait of a country at its worst, as a reminder of how different cultures speak different spiritual languages, and as a history lesson about the dangers of American self-righteousness.

But those valuable contemporary resonances don't give this respectful adaptation much-needed freshness. The movie, so handsome in its grim sepia hues, comes off like a dutiful retelling for the sake of retelling. Director Yves Simoneau and writer Daniel Giat fail to wrest vital personal drama out of this tragic story, which covers the chunk of history from the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 to Wounded Knee. They deliver the tale like a burned-out but conscientious schoolteacher might teach yet another semester of geography.

The "Bury My Heart" script revolves around three representative individuals -- a mixed-race Sioux, a white senator, and a Lakota chief -- as it moves through years of displacement and conflict. But the specifics of the narrative are jumpy and poorly defined, with photos of the characters inserted between segments as if to justify the overall rudderlessness.

Adam Beach , who was the alcoholic veteran in "Flags of Our Fathers," brings full-on moodiness to his portrayal of Charles Eastman , a Dartmouth- and B U -educated part-Sioux doctor struggling with racial identity issues. As a child, Eastman is forced to adopt a Christian name, and he owns it as proudly as he owns his assimilation until he can no longer deny the hypocrisy in the whites' treatment of his people. As Native Americans are pushed onto reservations and forced to plant and harvest food, Eastman turns his back on his mentor, Aidan Quinn's Senator Henry Dawes . Eastman, by the way, did exist, but Giat's script puts him in places such as Little Bighorn and with people such as Dawes for the sake of his plotting.

As Dawes's good intentions to save Native Americans turn sour, as threats are made and land is stolen, we see the impact most vividly through Sitting Bull , played by August Schellenberg . Ultimately, Sitting Bull sells out and makes money as a photo opportunity and as a carnival attraction. But we first get to watch him refuse to live on a reservation, and, later, defy a reservation agent played by J.K. Simmons with some of the hatred he projected as a white supremacist on "Oz." Schellenberg presents a cold dignity, but ultimately his minimalist performance doesn't build to a head.

Because of the unfocused story line, secondary characters seem to float in and out without much distinction. Colme Feore is a creepy-eyed General Sherman, Anna Paquin is Eastman's wife, schoolteacher Elaine Goodale , Wes Studi shows up in one of the more rousing scenes as a prophet teaching his people a resistance dance, and possible presidential candidate and "Law & Order" actor Fred Thompson appears unmemorably as President Grant. Like the movie as a whole, these actors stay unfortunately close to the surface.

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

'Related'

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Starring: Adam Beach, Aidan Quinn, August Schellenberg, Anna Paquin, Wes Studi, J.K. Simmons, Fred Thompson

On: HBO

Time: Sunday night, 9-11:15

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