In Defense of the TV Movie

NBC’s earnest Matthew Shepard drama trumps HBO’s self-congratulatory one.

Four years ago, a TV producer called to ask if I wanted to work on a documentary for MTV about a college student who had recently been murdered in Wyoming. Because Matthew Shepard was only the second figure I had ever read about who had been crucified, because picketers at his funeral had held signs suggesting that he deserved it, I said yes.

I was filled with energy. The producers and I discussed our approach to the half-hour documentary, which had to be produced fast. We agreed that we would put hard questions to the youth of America. We would take on the controversy.

But no one seemed able to say what the controversy was.

On the next two Saturday nights, HBO and NBC, respectively, will première their versions of the story. NBC’s The Matthew Shepard Story is solidly in the movie-of-the-week tradition; it’s an invention “based on the true story” that borrows lines from courtroom transcripts. The movie tells the story of Shepard’s parents’ struggle to compose a “victim’s statement” for the court—a rousing eulogy and call to arms that, in the conceit of the film, will make the difference between the murderer Aaron McKinney’s getting sentenced to life in prison or being condemned to death.

The Shepards’ mounting doubts about the death penalty, Matthew, and each other give the film surprising depth and narrative drive. By laying off the “lessons” of the murder—about homophobia, provincialism, violence in the heartland, and the need for hate-crimes legislation—in the service of drama, the film saves itself from advocacy and cliché.          

HBO’s The Laramie Project does not practice the same restraint. Based on the play of the same name, the movie is a mockumentary in which actors do not act; they re-enact. Here they channel the “ordinary” people of Laramie, who once fumbled to produce epigrams about homophobia, provincialism, violence, and hate crimes for interviewers. The interviewers are also in the film, again played by actors. The result of this bizarre method is that HBO’s movie lacks even the intrusive thrill that most ordinary documentaries provide.

But the insult of the movie is not that it’s boring; it’s that there seems to be something mandatory about watching it. HBO has endeavored to shore up the show’s scant drama by giving the show a tag line, “Everybody carries a piece of the truth,” which leads you to expect a mystery. But there was no mystery about Matthew’s murder. As every character in the movie knows, Shepard, a gay 21-year-old, was killed by two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who feigned sexual interest in him, abducted him from a bar, and then tied him to a fence and beat him to death. Both murderers quickly confessed to the crime.

Though it offers little to watch and nothing new to learn, the film projects an unaccountable self-importance, as if it is an act of courage and significance sufficient unto itself. Coming to Laramie to get “everybody’s piece of the truth,” the actor/filmmakers have the air of missionaries or saints. The actor/characters struggle to be camera-worthy for the actor/filmmakers: They either sit and stare portentously, or they engage in perfunctory bits of heartland stage business, like fixing a car or putting up hay. But no one has anything new or revealing to say, and none of the dialogue, however Middle American, adds up to—or even contextualizes—the violence and mania of the night that Shepard was killed. What little suspense the film does muster derives almost exclusively from the slow unfolding of the Laramie Project cast—Christina Ricci, Laura Linney, Steve Buscemi, Camryn Manheim, Peter Fonda, and more than a dozen other high-credibility actors. And I could not help but notice that Moises Kaufman, the director, has cast an extremely handsome and heroic-looking actor named Nestor Carbonell to play himself.

We finished Matthew’s Murder for MTV in November 1998, and it aired that month. I recently watched it again: It has a moody soundtrack, jumpy graphics, and no shortage of quick cuts. It does not belong to the great documentary tradition; it’s made up of news clips, man-on-the-street interviews, and stand-ups by Serena Altschul. And try as we did to wring controversy from the subject  (“Does it make you mad to be hit on by a gay person?”), we got nothing but predictable—and largely reasonable—answers. (“It’s flattering to be hit on by anyone.”) And it’s not like we didn’t try. We actively sought rabidly conservative students; we spent a day at the Citadel. At the University of Charleston, we found a big, theatrical guy who mugged for our camera and mouthed off about fags. Then he said he was kidding. We were so short on bad guys that we almost used the hammy quote—minus the retraction.

The murder of Matthew Shepard was not controversial. It was just very, very sad. And, as the veteran producers of NBC’s TV movies have acknowledged far better than HBO’s artful documentarians, it is difficult to make a compelling story out of such bald facts—facts that in this case leave little room for competing interpretations and allow no one but a few dozen professional gay-bashers to see “another side” to the actions of the two men who kidnapped and killed Matthew Shepard on a cold night in Wyoming.