Father searches for justice but it eludes him

Preview: `The Hunt for the Unicorn Killer' isn't bad. But beware the failing common to docudramas: Stretching the truth.

May 08, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"The Hunt for the Unicorn Killer" is a heckuva story that kept me pinned to the couch beginning to end.

But, I warn you, it's docudrama, which means we don't know when and where truth is stretched to be more prime-time entertaining. And this is the kind of story in which what you believe to be true can have profound cultural implications.

With "Unicorn," NBC takes us back to the 1960s. Before you run screaming from the TV set at the memory of "The Sixties," the miniseries that turned a cultural revolution into idiot psycho-babble and melodramatic mush, you need to know "Unicorn" does a much better job with the decade. I mean, come on, could it do worse?

It does better because it doesn't try to be about the decade. Its focus instead is an anti-war activist named Ira Einhorn and his relationship with and murder of a woman named Holly Maddux. That's Part 1 of the miniseries tomorrow night. Part 2, on Monday, is about the struggle by Holly's father to bring Einhorn to justice.

The film opens in Philadelphia in 1968 with Holly (Naomi Watts), a blond and beautiful young woman from Texas, being dropped off at Bryn Mawr by her father (Tom Skerritt). Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride" sets the perfect musical tone as the story catches fire when Holly meets Einhorn (Kevin Anderson), a leader of the Philadelphia counterculture, local celebrity and darling of several wealthy men and women interested in various social causes.

She moves in with Einhorn and quickly finds herself in an abusive relationship that extends until 1979, when police find her mummified body locked in a steamer trunk in Einhorn's apartment. To this day, he says the CIA killed Holly and locked her body in the trunk in his apartment to discredit him. He is still living free in France despite having been tried in absentia in the United States and found guilty of the murder. Like I said, heckuva story.

And it is made all the more compelling by two fine performances by Anderson and Skerritt. Anderson (Father Ray on "Nothing Sacred") takes Einhorn from sweetness and charm to pure menace in a heartbeat and makes you believe it's real. In Anderson's hands, Einhorn is a short fuse tied to an oversized bundle of emotional pyrotechnics.

Skerritt (Sheriff Jimmy Brock on "Picket Fences"), on the other hand, plays Maddux as nothing if not even-keeled. He's the slow, steady, soft-spoken but steely eyed Texan. Like a Texas Ranger, he's going to get his man. The scene between Skerritt and Anderson, who visits Texas with Holly and behaves like a boor, is mesmerizing.

But, as great as it plays in terms of entertainment, that scene in the Madduxes' basement also highlights the kinds of problems that almost always come with docudramas. In the recreation room is a huge Nazi flag as well as other Nazi memorabilia. In trying to put Maddux on the defensive, Einhorn comments on the flag, saying, as a Jew, he finds it offensive.

Maddux responds with a speech about fighting in World War II and how the memorabilia is there to remind him of what we fought for. It's a great speech in terms of highlighting generational differences and heightening the conflict between the two men. But it is a little weak in explaining why he has a big Nazi flag in his basement.

You wonder if maybe some of Maddux's less pleasant edges were smoothed over to sharpen the narrative focus of good vs. evil. And, if his depiction was sweetened, how might Einhorn's have been exaggerated in terms of evil?

There are other concerns worth thinking about, too, like the way prime-time television these days is bashing the politics of the 1960s through its depiction of leaders of the counterculture. If the depiction of Einhorn in "Unicorn" is factual, so be it. But I am struck by how similar he is to the madman radical that the young woman at the center of "The Sixties" took up with. He, too, abused her before finally blowing himself up in an orgy of ego.

I wonder and worry about the politics and sociology of such depictions of our past.

`The Hunt for the Unicorn Killer'

When: 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. tomorrow and Monday

Where: NBC (WBAL, Channel 11)

Pub Date: 5/08/99

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