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On the Tube: Two movies on Shepard tragedy take two approaches

Friday, March 08, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Hollywood always does this. Not content to make one movie about a volcano, two are released within the span of a few months.

The same is true of television. Just a few months ago, multiple series about spies hit the air, some in the same week. In a replay reminiscent of the dueling Amy Fisher miniseries, two TV movies about murdered gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard will air this month.

HBO's "The Laramie Project" (8 p.m. tomorrow) is the more thoughtful, unconventional film as it deals with the reactions of people in Shepard's hometown. NBC's "The Matthew Shepard Story" (9 p.m. March 16) is more typical, exploring Shepard's life through the memories of his parents.

The two films complement one another, approaching the story from different points of view: the meaning of his death ("The Laramie Project") and the importance of his life ("The Matthew Shepard Story"). The first is political, the second, personal.

HBO's "Laramie Project" is based on the play of the same name by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project.

The film shows these actors and Kaufman (played by Nestor Carbonell) descending upon Laramie after Shepard's 1998 murder to record more than 400 hours of interviews that were then adapted into scenes performed on stage.

Their interviewees include the cop who found Shepard (Amy Madigan), the bartender (Joshua Jackson) who served Shepard before his death and a college student (Jeremy Davis). They also talk to ranchers, friends of Shepard, and friends of Aaron McKinney (Mark Webber) and Russell Henderson (Garrett Neergaard), who were convicted of attacking Shepard.

"I thought kids who did this came from someplace else," says a rancher's wife (Kathleen Chalfant).

"When I found out [what happened to Matthew], I just thought it was horrible," says the wife (Laura Linney) of a state trooper. "I don't care who you are."

"Now we're a town defined by a crime, like Waco," says the college student.

"Laramie Project" isn't about Matthew (Matt, to his friends), but about the attitudes of a town that was home to both the victim and the perpetrators of a hate-inspired crime.

Though it would be easy to suspect that a bunch of left-wing actors would depict Laramie as the sticks and its denizens as the hicks, the film is pretty fair. In addition to showing those who condemn Shepard in the name of religion for his sexual orientation (including a minister), it also includes a sympathetic Roman Catholic priest.

NBC's "Matthew Shepard Story" takes place during the trial of McKinney as Judy (Stockard Channing) and Dennis (Sam Waterston) Shepard attempt to write a statement that will ensure the death penalty for their son's killer. Judy begins to have doubts.

"Are we going to feel better when McKinney's dead?" Judy asks.

"Yes. No. I don't know," Dennis says. "That's not the point."

"We're so busy trying to get the death penalty, we haven't figured out why we're doing it," Judy replies.

Matt, who is never seen in "The Laramie Project," is a fully developed character in NBC's story. Played by actor Shane Meier (Animal Planet's "Call of the Wild"), Matt is seen in flashbacks coming to terms with his sexual orientation, falling in love at a boarding school in Switzerland and being raped during a spring break trip to Morocco.

Though you'd think the HBO film would be the more daring of the two, NBC's film, with its scenes of Matt partying with his gay -- often outspoken -- friends, takes more risks. It has the greater potential to send viewers channel surfing.

Unlike past television projects that had viewers seeing double, there's room for both "Laramie Project" and "Matthew Shepard." Even airing in the same month isn't an overdose.

The only scene where the two films overlap depicts Shepard's father (Terry Kinney in "Laramie Project") reading a statement at McKinney's trial. It's the most moving, affecting scene in both films as Dennis Shepard describes how his son, tied to a fence, did not die alone.

"He was with his lifelong friends he'd grown up with, the beautiful night sky and the same stars and moon he used to see through a telescope," Shepard says. "Then he had the sun to shine on him. Through it all, he was breathing in the scent of pine trees... He heard the wind, the ever-present Wyoming wind. He had one other friend with him. He had God."


Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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