A four-hour dramatization of how one enigmatic soldier faces charges of rape and murder in 1985 North Carolina has the impact and click of a fictional drama and inspires the awesome awareness that it’s a true story — slicked up to grab attention. How those around the soldier, especially his father, stick by him, and how he sinks further and further into the morass would give the late mystery writer John Dickson Carr pause; once hooked, viewers won’t let this one go.
Mon. Jan. 22, 8 p.m.
Filmed in Southern California by Kushner Locke Prods. and Cates/Doty Prods. Executive producers, Gilbert Cates, Dennis E. Doty; supervising producer, Gy Waldron; producer, Doty; director, Cates; writer, Waldron, based on the book by Scott Whisnant and on court transcripts and interviews; Director Gilbert Cates doesn’t let up after Army Sgt. Tim Hennis (John Corbett) is picked up for the Thursday night murder of Mrs. Eastburn, a woman from whom he’d bought a dog Tuesday. The victim and her two small children, savagely slain, are survived by her husband, who was out of town. One man, Owen Breck (Chaka Forman), says he saw Hennis near the Eastburn home, and a spacey babysitter, Stacey Carolwood (Ari Meyers), claims that she, too, had seen him.
Hennis’ whereabouts are suspect. His wife, Angela (Liza Snyder), had taken her daughter visiting out of town. He claims he was at home, but there’s a glitch: Seems he stopped by an old flame’s place.
Riding to the rescue is Tim’s father, Bob (Hal Holbrook), who hires the best defense lawyers available, though he and wife Marylou (Rue McClanahan) are strapped. Jerry Beaver (Tom Irwin) and associate Billy Richardson (Rick Schroder) take on the case.
Billy hires a red-hot detective, D.B. Guiness (John P. Connolly), but the defense team is faced in part one by wily d.a. Steven Smithline (Howard Hesseman), who tampers with evidence and conceals facts.
Gy Waldron’s script pitches a multitude of names and situations at viewers as the stoic Tim fidgets in jail for four long years. It becomes evident that Tim’s distinctive looks are not that singular; at least two other men in the area answer the rundown.
The filmmakers and cast have blown up a giant balloon that indicates all sorts of possibilities, including a mention of the “Fatal Vision” murders, which took place not far from the Eastburn home. After a careful, even slick, four-hour buildup, the balloon doesn’t so much explode as drift away.
But it’s compelling TV, and the principals and supporting players are all first-rate. Above-the-title Schroder looks too young for the role, but puts in considerable energy; he’s often convincing. Corbett’s Tim is imposing, and Holbrook again turns in a winning perf. Hesseman’s d.a. is a shrewd eye-catcher, and Irwin’s suave Beaver hits the bell.
In the memorable department, Meyers’ odd babysitter and Forman’s mixed-up Breck top the list. Snyder shows particularly persuasive emoting in a part-two jail-house scene, and Connolly’s investigator is an acceptable stock character. McClanahan doesn’t have much to do but figuratively wring her hands, which she does acceptably.
Rondi Reed’s scared newspaper deliverer, Lisa Waltz’s ex-g.f. and Tom Reynolds’ blank Tim look-alike add good support.
Southern California location subs for North Carolina sites are ingenious. Location manager Mike Jarvis and production designer Lisa Smithline have imaginatively covered the region from Fort MacArthur to Claremont’s Carnegie Library to replicate the original spots. Mark Irwin’s camerawork is sharp. Millie Moore’s editing ably paces the crime drama, while Charles Fox has supplied a restrained, serviceable score.