USA's `Sniper' story misses the mark

Filmmakers fail to capture emotion of real-life drama


October 16, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

There's no television as maddening as docudrama when it's done badly.

D.C. Sniper: 23 Days of Fear, a USA cable channel film based on last year's Beltway sniper killings and starring Charles S. Dutton, is the kind of bad, sad, unredeemable, exploitative docudrama without which society would do just fine. Even the weird energy generated by the film's timing - it airs during the opening week of the trial of John Allen Muhammad, one of the alleged snipers - can't jump-start this wreck.

As a longtime champion of Dutton's work in television, let me say this: As much as I would like to preface what follows with the phrase, "despite a fine performance by Dutton," I can't. Dutton seems to sleepwalk through his lead role as Charles Moose, the Montgomery County police chief who led the massive sniper investigation.

Instead of his "A" game, Dutton gives the camera long silences and one or two of his stock, furrowed-brow, facial expressions: "Look out, I'm about to explode," or "Man, am I frustrated." To say that his portrayal of Moose is one dimensional is to overstate it by half.

But the misery here runs much deeper than Dutton's performance. While the movie is all too willing to exploit viewers' fears with graphic images of residents gunned down in front of blood-spattered gasoline pumps, it offers absolutely no greater insight into the attacks. The filmmakers spend the time and money to painstakingly re-create a scene showing a woman being shot in the parking lot of Home Depot as her husband screams in horror but give viewers no explanations whatsoever into how or why such things happened as they did.

The film opens with the disclaimer: "Although this movie is based upon actual events, certain characters and scenes have been fictionalized." Welcome to the never-never land of docudrama, where maybe it happened this way, and maybe it didn't.

The filmmakers - producer Orly Adelson (The Truth About Jane), director Tom McLoughlin (Murder in Greenwich) and screenwriter David Erickson (Murder in Greenwich) - don't seem to know much more about the attacks than was recounted in the media at the time. (The credits list as a "creative consultant," Michael Isikoff, who covered the story for Newsweek.)

To provide both narrative tension and insight, the docudrama needs to take viewers into three realms: the private world of the snipers, the inner workings of the manhunt and the lives of those who reside in the vicinity of the attacks. D.C. Sniper shows the facades of all three but gets inside none of them.

Maybe if the filmmakers had waited for the conclusion of the separate trials of Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo (scheduled to start next month), they'd have deeper insight into what the two were thinking, as well as the details of their lives during last fall's 23-day shooting spree. Not to mention whether they are judged to be guilty by a court of law.

For a model, they might have looked at In Cold Blood, Truman Capote's 1966 book, which recounted the murder of a Kansas farm family in part through the eyes of the two killers. In the landmark book, Capote combines exemplary reporting with novelistic writing.

Instead of taking viewers inside the minds of the alleged snipers, however, Erickson's script offers few telling details and little illumination into what motivated these two men to form their murderous alliance. Rather than allowing viewers to see life through the eyes of the alleged killers, DC Sniper merely offers images of Muhammad (Bobby Hosea) and Malvo (Trent Cameron) as they drive around the Beltway in their Chevy Caprice listening to the radio, looking tense and saying little.

From time to time, Muhammad remarks to the younger Malvo, "Free your mind." But the phrase is so lacking in context that it would be laughable - except that it is sometimes uttered as the younger man lies in the trunk of a car, training a high-powered rifle on an innocent victim.

Behind-the-scenes "access" to the investigation is equally limited. You'd think with the camera focused on Moose most of the time, revealing something about his inner life would be a priority. But Moose was writing his own book, and so apparently wasn't granting free access to his private thoughts.

What we do see of Moose backstage mostly comes from moments of interaction with Doug Duncan (Jay O. Sanders), the county executive of Montgomery County. Since there are also scenes set in Duncan's house, which only he or other Duncan family members could have known about, it is not hard to figure out whose viewpoint is coloring the narrative.

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