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Afterburn // The pain remains

Published Jul. 5, 2006

Janet Harduvel says she hopes the HBO movie premiering tonight about her struggle to clear her late husband's name doesn't come across as "another "woman in jep' drama."

In jep (in jeopardy) is Hollywood shop talk for a TV movie theme about a once-downtrodden woman who overcomes great obstacles and stoically prevails in the end. Tearfully sentimental scenes and chin-up background music usually wrap up the story line.

Harduvel, 41, doesn't fit that scenario. She's a scrappy fighter. Always has been, always will be.

Even when tragedy happened to her ("Thirty-one is too young to be a widow," she says solemnly), she became a feisty avenger. She sued a corporate giant after the death of her husband, Air Force Capt. Ted Harduvel, and she won a victory _ of sorts.

Firecracker actress Laura Dern plays Harduvel. Watch her, then meet talkative, non-conformist Harduvel in her storefront astrology office on U.S. 41, and you feel the full thrust of Harduvel's determination. She's hardly a damsel in distress.

Yet Afterburn almost made the mistake of portraying Harduvel that way.

Afterburn tells how Harduvel met her future husband at MacDill Air Force base in Tampa in 1973 (she says she moved from New York to Florida "so I could wear flip-flops year round"). HBO changes the place to a fictitious Wallace AFB in Texas and the date to 1976. In real life, Harduvel was a senior at the University of Tampa, working at MacDill's officers club, serving drinks to the "bootstrappers," as she calls military personnel.

Ted and Janet soon married and had a daughter, Kiki. Ted flew F-16 fighter jets, and a few years later, when he was stationed overseas (his family was still in Tampa), his plane crashed into a mountain during a routine training mission in South Korea on Nov. 15, 1982.

Not for a minute, even in her deepest mourning, did Harduvel accept the military's version of how Ted died. The Air Force blamed the accident on "pilot error." Case closed.

But Harduvel thought something had to be wrong with the $14-million jet. She recalls her initial frustration at trying to figure out how Ted, one of the first pilots chosen to fly the sleek F-16s at MacDill, could have crashed seven minutes after takeoff. (More than 40 pilots have died in F-16 training accidents.)

Harduvel obtained a copy of the accident report and did the research that convinced her the jet was faulty ("I had to _ I couldn't sleep at night," she says of her efforts to piece together what happened to her husband). Then she embarked on a legal battle with the F-16's manufacturer, defense contractor General Dynamics.

In 1987, a federal jury in Tampa agreed with Harduvel and found General Dynamics liable for defects in the F-16 that caused Ted Harduvel's death. Harduvel was awarded $3.1-million. Then an appellate court reversed the lower court ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the decisions and found that although the jet was defective, General Dynamics was immune from liability claims. Janet and Kiki, now 12, never have collected a cent. A motion for a new trial is pending in federal court in Tampa, based on new evidence of more manufacturing defects, from which General Dynamics would not be immune.

The court case is "monstrously complicated," says WFLA-Ch. 8 reporter Rob North, who was on the scene from the day of Ted's funeral and is portrayed in the HBO drama as Jeff Maxwell. North says he thinks the HBO version is "pretty cool." He's relieved the drama shows a TV reporter as a hard-working individual and not "an obnoxious, overbearing jerk the way most films portray the media."

And despite the condensing of the legal struggle and the pumping up of the anguish factor, Afterburn gives "a good accounting of Janet's story," says her main attorney, St. Petersburg lawyer Howard Acosta.

Acosta, one of three lawyers who argued Harduvel's cause (he is shown in the HBO movie as a composite character, Robert Leonetti, played by Robert Loggia), adds that the actual trial "had courtroom scenes better than L.A. Law provides."

But Acosta understands why HBO tilted Afterburn more toward Top Gun. He also adds dryly that in the film, the attorney calls Janet "sweetheart" in one scene. "I never called Janet that," he says, clearly amused.

Sitting in her office with a zodiac chart behind her, Harduvel (she uses her maiden name, Janet Sciales, for her astrology counseling work) gives the HBO drama a thumbs-up as well. She likes Dern's performance. "I've always wanted to be a willowy blond," she wisecracks, "and now I am one in the movies."

She thinks Vincent Spano was great for Ted's role, although she would like to have seen the actor wear a mustache, as Ted did.

Harduvel is generous in overlooking the cable channel's liberties with the truth for dramatic effect. Recalling one emotional scene in which Dern learns that a key witness has just died in an auto accident, she says, "I wouldn't throw myself down on my back in the back yard," as Dern did, " . . . but then I guess I cuss a little bit more than Laura does in the movie, too."

Harduvel realizes more than anyone that the movie's tampering with the facts could have been worse _ a lot worse. As it turned out, she contributed to the writing of the script, a rare practice when Hollywood gets its hands on a real-life story.

Also unusual is the fact that Afterburn isn't based on a book. The script was written after 60 Minutes broadcast a story about Harduvel's ordeal in 1987, reported by Diane Sawyer. The newsmagazine contacted Harduvel after the report and told her that Disney was interested in making a TV movie. "There's a hundred reasons why that project got delayed," Harduvel recalls with a sigh. But HBO took over in March 1991 and by last summer, Harduvel was summoned to Hollywood to meet the cast.

"When I read the eighth and supposedly final script that had been passed through about three different writers' hands, I saw they hadn't even spelled my name right. Nothing was true." The script had her holding a general hostage in a Jacuzzi to make him listen to her. "So I spent four days with Elizabeth Chandler (who has the final writing credit), and we came up with a major rewrite."

Recently, Harduvel and daughter Kiki went back to Los Angeles for a screening of the final film. "I thought it would be very painful to watch. But there was a real nice transference I hadn't anticipated. I cried for the little girl on the screen who portrayed Kiki. And I transferred to Laura what happened to me."

Harduvel says that the crash scene did "impact both Kiki and I, though. As much as we talked about it, I never really visualized it. So seeing it re-enacted blew me back in my chair and watered my eyes."

Harduvel, who still wears her marquise diamond wedding band, says that HBO kept the fact that she's an astrologer out of the movie because it wasn't relevant. "I've always had two separate lives," she explains, adding that her identity in her profession also helped her to cope with her tragedy.

Then she adds with a broad smile: "Of course, Laura wears star earrings to the trial," the film's subtle reference to astrology.

Afterburn ends with Harduvel's winning her court case. (What happened afterward legally is noted only in a postscript.) The last scene shows her taking Kiki to visit Ted's grave after the verdict comes in. It was a longtime promise from Harduvel to her daughter that as soon as the courtroom ordeal was over, she would take Kiki to visit the grave for the first time.

Afterburn concludes with typical Hollywood heart-tugging. But reporter North says the time at the grave was poignant in real life. "I'm a cynic," he says. "But the way Janet handled that with Kiki, well, it was very touching.

"Janet's the survivor type," he concludes. Then, as an afterthought, he adds as a compliment: " . . . and a fighter."