Death Row’s a busy place these days. Following in the footsteps of recent features “Dead Man Walking” and “Last Dance,” Showtime offers Death Row drama with a twist in “Beyond the Call.” The pic abstains from taking a position on the death penalty, choosing instead to emphasize post-traumatic stress syndrome in Vietnam veterans. Star Sissy Spacek contributes her usual plain-spoken conviction to this affecting tale.
Spacek plays Connecticut housewife Pam, who learns from the local paper that her high school sweetheart is a two-time murderer scheduled for execution. She decides to write to Russell (David Strathairn), whom she hasn’t seen in years, telling him she remembers him fondly and she’s grateful to him for helping her get through her parents’ split up.
Russell appears less than thrilled with the letter. But it prompts a call from his sister Fran (Janet Wright) to Pam, asking her to convince Russell to make an effort to get a clemency hearing. Pam reluctantly agrees to visit Russell in prison in South Carolina. Pam’s insurance salesman husband, Keith (an understated Arliss Howard), is less than enthusiastic about the plan, but he doesn’t stand in Pam’s way.
The sweet teenage Russell that Pam remembers (and we see in flashbacks) has turned into a foul-mouthed, angry man, a transformation that all concerned blame on his experiences fighting in Vietnam. The imprisoned Russell describes himself to Pam as “a wreck on the highway”; he has accepted his punishment and is tired of battling courts that don’t understand his problems. Pam talks him into giving it one more try at the clemency hearing.
Pam’s involvement makes Keith increasingly angry and jealous. Doug Magee’s script, “inspired by actual events,” provides clever parallels between Russell and Keith: Both are Vietnam vets and both have struggled with their memories and traumas from that time. Meanwhile, Pam is trying to resolve her relationship with her first love, and to find that young man somewhere inside the adult Russell, without alienating her husband and kids.
Story is involving, but the construction of the piece works against it at times. The issue of post-traumatic stress comes out of nowhere just before the clemency hearing, and then more or less vanishes. Russell can’t appear at the hearing in person, so his lawyer reads his powerful statement, but only a little bit of it; more would have helped. In a brief seg, trying to decide what to wear to visit Russell, Pam tries on a strange outfit; it at first seems an odd attempt at humor, until a flashback later makes sense of the moment. Director Tony Bill and editor Axel Hubert needed to take one more pass at it.
Overall, Bill’s helming is subtle, andhis stars deliver moving perfs. Strathairn especially offers a complex portrayal of a man in a difficult situation, struggling to accept a hand offered in friendship without dragging its owner down with him.
Tech credits, except for George S. Clinton’s derivative music, are fine.