NBC film misses opportunity to tell an important story

Preview: A lot could have been learned from `The Matthew Shepard Story,' but the chance is lost when the mother becomes the focus.

March 16, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

I would probably like NBC's The Matthew Shepard Story a lot more if HBO's The Laramie Project hadn't run just last week.

There's nothing terribly wrong with NBC's telling of this story about a college student beaten to death by two young men who hated him because he was gay. It's a quality production with outstanding direction by Roger Spottiswoode (And the Band Played On ... ), and lead performances from Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston that are every bit as compelling as could be expected from their weekly work in, respectively, The West Wing and Law & Order.

And, yet, this film seems so small in scope and lacking in resonance compared to The Laramie Project. The problems start with the title: This isn't really The Matthew Shepard Story as much as it is The Story of Matthew Shepard's Mom.

There's nothing wrong with that - I just don't feel that Judy Shepard's pain is as important as what happened to her son. Nor does the NBC film have as much to tell us about ourselves as did The Laramie Project's interviews with residents of the Wyoming city near where Matthew Shepard lived and died. That's the difference between NBC and HBO - the former went for a mother's tears, while the latter tried to show us the evil allowed to live in America's soul.

NBC's film opens with a graphic, bloody, impressionistic depiction of Shepard's vicious beating as he was tied to a fence off a remote road outside of Laramie. The film starts one year after the funeral, as Judy Shepard (Channing) sits at her computer working on a flood of material connected to the Matthew Shepard Foundation. From that point on, virtually everything in the film is seen from her point of view - that of a middle-class mom trying to come to terms with her son's horrible death.

The dramatic journey at the heart of the film involves Judy and her husband, Dennis (Waterston), trying to decide whether to ask for the death penalty, now that their son's killers have been found guilty. Dennis wants the killers to die, while she is far less certain. As we learn about Matthew Shepard's life through flashback memories of his mother and father, the couple moves toward the sentencing hearing at which they will request that the killers receive a reprieve of life in prison - or tell the judge they want them to die.

Even though it is Dennis who makes the big speech at the end, we watch him do it and judge his effort through Judy's eyes. She and Matthew were the teachers, while he was the pupil.

The story of the parents is touching, of course, but it tells us almost nothing about the prejudice and hate that is wrongly tolerated by too much of mainstream America. That's what killed their son - not the fact that Matthew's mom felt sad for him because he had a lousy time at his senior prom.

I don't like the bromide ending of this film one bit. Its overriding message is that Matthew Shepard really wasn't alone that night on the fence - that he had his "friends": the Wyoming night sky and the wind. I know that's what his father wanted to believe.

But it's just the kind of pretty lie that keeps us from hating what happens to too many homosexuals in America enough to really change the culture.

Matthew Shepard Story

Where: WBAL (Channel 11)

When: tonight at 9

In brief: fine performances, but more about melodrama than wisdom

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