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Missing Persons

NBC and HBO bring the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard to the small screen, and while heartfelt, both overlook telling aspects of small-town life in Little America.

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Taking Flight: Christina Ricci leads the mourners for a murdered gay man in HBO's The Laramie Project.  

You'll be anguished by the angels and confounded by the shoes. The same angels show up in both these variations on a hate crime. They are friends and classmates of Matthew Shepard, constituents of grief, supporters of gay rights. Outside the church or the courthouse, dressed up in sheets with scaffolding for wings, they interpose themselves between the cameras of the media and the agitators chanting homophobic slogans. They complicate the "live" vampire feed. The Matthew Shepard Story tells us that these angels wore earplugs so as not to have to hear the slogans. Toward the end of The Laramie Project, they will also resonate, of course, with a production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America at the University of Wyoming.

Whereas the shoes remain a mystery. In The Laramie Project -- originally a stage piece based on 200 interviews conducted by Moises Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater colleagues, with a small cast playing multiple roles, before it was opened up to blue sky, brown prairie, and big-name acting -- the two men who abducted, tortured, and murdered Shepard are asked point-blank by the detective (Clancy Brown): "Why did you take his shoes?" They don't know, or choose not to explain. In The Matthew Shepard Story, a flashback follows the boy on a school holiday from Switzerland to Morocco, where, as if in undress rehearsal, he will be ambushed and assaulted by young thugs who also take his shoes. This coincidence is not remarked upon by either film, since they haven't seen each other. But those of us who have seen both are none the wiser.

In fact, there's surprisingly little overlap. When Matthew's father, Dennis Shepard, rises in court to urge mercy instead of death for Aaron McKinney, he says the same thing whether he's Sam Waterston on NBC or Terry Kinney on HBO. But The Laramie Project is otherwise an anthropology of a small town (population 26,000) and a cowboy culture ("Live and let live" is how they like to think of themselves), with soul-searching locals impersonated by the likes of Dylan Baker, Steve Buscemi, Kathleen Chalfant, Peter Fonda, Janeane Garofalo, Joshua Jackson, Laura Linney, Camryn Manheim, Christina Ricci, Lois Smith, and Frances Sternhagen. Whereas The Matthew Shepard Story, as we'd expect of a commercial network movie, is the usual nuclear-family fallout shelter, all about what it felt like to be Matthew (Shane Meier) as well as his parents (Waterston and a very bruised Stockard Channing), and almost entirely innocent of politics, community, or ideology.

So, perhaps oddly, Matthew is mostly missing from The Laramie Project, which is more about how people have to reimagine themselves to accommodate what happened to him -- while Laramie is mostly missing from The Matthew Shepard Story, which seeks rather to account for the agonizing family decision not to ask for capital punishment. From The Matthew Shepard Story, you wouldn't know about any of the remarkable people we meet in The Laramie Project, like Father Roger Schmit (Tom Bower), the Catholic priest; Rebecca Hilliker (Camryn Manheim), who runs the University of Wyoming theater program; or Reggie Fluty (Amy Madigan), the police officer who treated Matt's bloody wounds, only to discover that he was HIV-positive. From The Laramie Project, you wouldn't know how spectacularly unhappy Matthew had been before his fatal abduction, even in Denver, or that his father was in Saudi Arabia during most of the trial. And from neither film do we learn anything at all about Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the born losers who left him hanging on a fence; for this intelligence, you must consult JoAnn Wypijewski's extraordinary essay in Harper's three years ago.

Well, in Laramie, as one closeted gay rancher explains, they didn't exactly live and let live. It is more like "If I don't tell you I'm a fag, you won't beat the crap out of me." But how is this much different from anyplace else in our homophobic country and our homophobic world? In Laramie, at least they seem to take what happened personally.

  • Who Is Alan Smithee? (March 5; 10 to 11 p.m.; AMC) is an amusing look behind the name they used to stick up on the screen when the actual director of the movie didn't want to be associated with what we were about to see, with long looks at continuing controversies from Death of a Gunfighter (1969) to American History X (1998).

  • Joe and Max (March 9; 8 to 10 p.m.; Starz!) takes us behind the scenes of the heavyweight-championship bouts between Joe Louis (Leonard Roberts) and Max Schmeling (Til Schweiger) to find a friendship utterly removed from the propagandistic hype of "Brown Bomber" vs. "Nazi." Don't miss the former Femme Nikita, Peta Wilson, as Max's blonde actress bride.

  • Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (March 10; 7 to 9 p.m.; ABC) is more fun than we're accustomed to in this Disney slot, reworking Cinderella to create a sort of Portrait of the Artist as an Ugly Duckling, with Stockard Channing, Jonathan Pryce, Azura Skye, and Trudie Styler, from a book by Gregory Maguire.

  • Firestarter: Rekindled (March 10 and 11; 9 to 11 p.m.; Sci Fi) returns to the scene of Stephen King's original crime, picking up the pyrokinetic Charlene "Charlie" McGee (Marguerite Moreau) ten years after she thinks she's fried all her evil government-agency pursuers -- except Malcolm McDowell is on her trail, using Danny Nucci to do his legwork, while Dennis Hopper is also hanging around to explain the future, and then there is that secret laboratory full of creepy paranormal children who come out at night to rob banks. Worth it just to look at Moreau.

  • Desert Saints (March 10; 10 to 11:30 p.m.; Cinemax), with hit man Kiefer Sutherland, undercover femme fatale Melora Walters, government agents Jamey Sheridan and Leslie Stefanson, and the wonderfully insouciant diner waitress Rachel Ticotin, wants to be forties noir and gets lost somewhere between triple crosses. Too bad, because Walters pulls out all the stops.

The Laramie Project
Saturday, March 9; 8 to 9:45 p.m.; HBO.
The Matthew Shepard Story
Saturday, March 16; 9 to 11 p.m.; NBC.


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