Ripped-from-the-headlines crime stories are de rigueur on TV these days, but even a year later, a movie about the sniper shooting spree that left 10 dead and three wounded over a few short weeks in and around the nation’s capital may still come too soon for many involved. While USA Network offers a well acted and uncharacteristically restrained account with “D.C. Sniper: 23 Days of Fear,” title is a bit of a misnomer: The fear lingers on.
This case didn’t just dominate the news; it dominated people’s lives. In the post-9/11 landscape, it was another assault on the nation’s sense of security. Writer Dave Erickson and director Tom McLoughlin avoid any commentary on social ramifications or even the help/hindrance of the ensuing media frenzy. Instead, they hearken back to a Hollywood staple — the hero’s story.
In this account, the sniper case is played out through the experiences of Montgomery County, Md., Police Chief Charles Moose, portrayed with remarkable depth by Charles S. Dutton. He’s a regular guy thrust into the national spotlight when the unthinkable happens.
Within a 24-hour period in early October 2002, six people are killed while performing mundane daily tasks — pumping gas, mowing lawns, cleaning out cars. The shootings, executed with a single shot by an unseen assailant, occur in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., in such a short span of time that police manpower and media coverage can barely keep up. There’s no protocol to follow as victims are targeted regardless of gender, race and age.
The FBI and local police band together with City Council members to try and get a handle on the situation. According to police profiles, spree killers skew white male, late 20s. There are reports of a white box van or truck at several of the crime scenes. As the police scramble for clues, viewers follow sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo as they stalk and kill their victims and then sail smoothly through road checks and even police stops.
Although McLoughlin avoids sensationalizing the shootings –most happen offscreen — his experience as a horror director seeps into the production. More than once, the now-infamous blue Chevy Caprice with Jersey plates is seen circling intended victims like a shark circling prey.
Lenser Mark Wareham’s frenetic work adeptly captures the randomness of the killings, as the camera follows people in and out of a rifle’s scope. But the movie ultimately fails to sufficiently depict the psychological toll the case has had on the community — perhaps in part because events and trials are still unfolding.
At the time, Washington became a veritable ghost town — an entire metropolitan area brought to its knees. Events were canceled, schools were in lockdown, and shades were drawn in homes and stores. The production misses its mark on simple details, with Vancouver a poor substitute for the area in and around the Beltway. Telepic does a remarkably eerie job in re-creating the individual crime scenes, but even a few stock shots of local landmarks would be welcome ambiance.
Dutton as Moose captures the very personal nature of the events, even if the production does not. It is a horrific moment when Moose realizes that his own words are having more effect on the case than is the criminal investigation.
In the struggle to comprehend or explain the motivation behind such heinous crimes, Erickson takes the liberty of filling in the blanks, especially when it comes to sniper suspects Muhammad and Malvo. Supposedly, Mohammed was ultimately targeting his ex-wife, who lived in the area. And while it’s loathsome to think about the depths of violence that can stem from a domestic dispute, it’s a disservice to try to wrap up motive and movie with so tidy an ending.