Some terrific acting hides some big holes in NBC’s “The Matthew Shepard Story.” Telepic is a restrained, flashback-fueled bio that manages to strike some of the right emotional chords, but one of America’s most noteworthy hate crimes and its ripple effects feel much too condensed and rushed. Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston are ideal as grieving parents, and to that end, their account is particularly poignant. What’s missing is a sense of urgency and outrage, a message to everyone that the 1998 murder of a gentle, caring soul was far more than just material for another movie-of-the-week.
Coming on the heels of HBO’s superior “The Laramie Project,” “Shepard,” exec produced by Goldie Hawn, gets caught in the conventions of network made-fors. Softer than it should be, it feels important but succumbs to the restrictions imposed upon broadcast television. While there are specific scenes that don’t usually pop up on the Big 4 — an ultra-violent opening, two men kissing — it’s the underlying themes that are completely whitewashed. This is difficult subject matter, and it requires some big-time risks; whether it’s his resolve to come out, the community’s reaction or the legal wrangling, everything associated with Shepard has become a hot-button issue, but director Roger Spottiswoode’s take is rather standard.
Narrative follows the Shepards as they travel from Wyoming to Europe, where dad Dennis (Waterston) has moved the family because of his job. Matthew (Shane Meier) is shown only in the past, detailing the months that led to his death at the hands of Aaron McKinney (Phillips Edolls) and Russell Henderson (Paul Robbins), now serving lifetime sentences in jail.
After Matthew falls in love with Paolo (Yani Gellman), a fellow boarding school drama student who doesn’t quite share Matthew’s enthusiasm for being “out” in such a public way, mom Judy (Channing) starts to take a more active role in his life, supporting his orientation and trying to keep some sort of bond unbroken between her husband and son.
After graduation, Matthew enrolls at the U. of Wyoming. Now officially out, he befriends the members of a strong support group and slowly becomes comfortable with who he is. He eventually packs up again and heads to Colorado, where he hopes to blend in with the help of his best friend Romaine (Kristen Thompson).
Feeling uncomfortable, antsy and bored, he quits his job only months later and returns home, a decision that leads to deadly circumstances with which the entire world has become familiar. After accepting McKinney and Harrington’s offer to give him a ride, he’s found bloody and battered in field, tied to a fence. He died less than four days later.
Even though the fundamental plotline revolves around Matthew’s murder, this is Judy and Dennis’ tale, and Waterston and Channing shine. How they react — with anger, with condolence, and ultimately with compassion — goes a long way since there are so many other questions about the trial and about the city that linger after the final credits roll. Final exchange is potent, as Dennis, who had previously spoken out against clemency, gives in to Judy’s wishes and asks for mercy so that the killers can live in honor of his son.
While Spottiswoode and screenwriters John Wierick and Jacob Krueger have chosen the intimate path — how Matthew’s circle reacts to its confusion — it’s still surprising that the national attention, from President Clinton’s response to the galvanizing of various organizations and celebrities is completely avoided. A conscious choice to be sure, but there’s still something very small town about that kind of treatment, which isn’t exactly stimulating; “Laramie” feels more essential, while “Shepard” plays it safe.
Toronto fills in nicely for all of the locations, and d.p. John Bartley’s color and black-and-white camerawork is smooth.