TV offers double dose of harsh reality

NBC, HBO movies revisit Matthew Shepard murder, aftermath

— Two new television movies about the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard are a reminder of how mean-spirited the world can be � but enough about NBC scheduling its "The Matthew Shepard Story" against HBO's "The Laramie Project."

HBO had the good sense to move its film to Saturday, leaving the next Saturday to the NBC project.


AP Photo

Actors Amy Madigan and Nestor Carbonell walk up a gravel road in this scene from "The Laramie Project," an HBO movie adapted from the play about the 1998 murder in Wyoming of gay college student Matthew Shepard. It debuts Saturday.

That audiences might have had to choose between the two would have been a TV crime. It's rare enough that television � especially network movies � takes on important subjects. To see such a project used as just another competitive ploy is disheartening, at minimum.

NBC, for the record, called it mere coincidence. But HBO made public its project's air date last January; NBC's announcement came the following month.

Family issues

Each film has its own focus and level of ambition.

NBC's "The Matthew Shepard Story" dramatizes the murder and the moral dilemma faced by Shepard's parents over seeking the death penalty.

Shepard, a 21-year-old attending the University of Wyoming, was drawn out of a Laramie bar, fatally beaten and left tied to a fence on the outskirts of town. Two young men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, are serving life sentences.

The 1998 tragedy drew worldwide attention and became a flashpoint for debate over anti-gay violence, homosexual rights and hate crimes.

NBC's film offers a portrait of a vulnerable, naive youth, played by Shane Meier, trying to come to grips with his homosexuality and find acceptance and safe haven in an often-hostile world. Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston play the tormented parents who must reconcile their anger and their son's legacy.

For all its pathos the film feels oddly flat, as if it were fitted too neatly into a traditional movie-of-the-week format. It's a heartfelt but standard effort; the Shepard tragedy deserves better.

Play adaptation

More challenging and accomplished is the "The Laramie Project," based on the play conceived by Tectonic Theater Project founder Moises Kaufman. The movie casts a wide net over the Wyoming town were Shepard lived and died to try to discover the roots of the tragedy and its effect on Laramie.

The ensemble cast, including such notable actors as Amy Madigan, Steve Buscemi and Laura Linney, create sharply drawn portraits of real-life residents interviewed extensively by Tectonic project members.

Both words of hate and words of wisdom are heard.

"You think violence is what they did to Matthew? They did do violence to Matthew," one Catholic priest says. "(But) every time you are called a 'fag' or you are called a 'lez' (lesbian) ... do you realize that is violence? That is the seed of violence."

The NBC and the HBO films share some affecting scenes, including the indelible image of Laramie residents donning angel costumes with oversized wings to block from sight the angry, anti-homosexual placards held by protesters led by Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan.

Both movies also feature � with slight variations in wording and greater differences in performance � the eloquent courtroom speech offered by Shepard's father at McKinney's sentencing.

"I give you life in the memory of someone who no longer lives. May it be a long life. And may you thank Matthew every day of it," says Terry Kinney as Dennis Shepard in "The Laramie Project."

The play was the essence of simplicity, with a small group of actors on a nearly bare stage. In moving "The Laramie Project" to the screen and filming it on location, director Kaufman opens the drama up to take advantage of both cinematic techniques and Laramie itself as a character.

Anchored in a sea of range land, the town seems removed from the world. But the violence that battered Shepard (an unseen character in the movie) and made the town a symbol of hate are not Laramie's problem alone.

"When we went to Laramie, the hypothesis was we might get a sense of where 90 percent of small-town America is, where we are in places that are not New York or Los Angeles," said Kaufman. "And not only in terms of homosexuality but in terms of class and education and violence, all of the fault lines in our culture."

"Maybe, when people see the movie, they will experience some of that event in a way that is more personal and perhaps pose questions about how Laramie is similar or different than their town," he said.

Kaufman is diplomatic when asked in an interview about the NBC-HBO scheduling dustup, calling it only "strange."

"Now that they're on separate nights, as long as it encourages more and more dialogue, it's a good thing," he said.


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