Viewers benefited when HBO moved up "The Laramie Project" one Saturday so that it wouldn't face a movie on essentially the same topic that NBC had belatedly slotted for March 16 in an apparent attempt to undermine the cable channel's much superior drama.
Now, happily, no one has to choose between them.
Instead of having its audience diluted by "The Matthew Shepard Story"--an NBC account not without distinction, by the way--HBO has the topic to itself tonight, delivering 95 minutes of heartache worth building an evening around.
Adapting "The Laramie Project" from his off-Broadway play, Moises Kaufman follows the beams of hate and humanity that converged following the 1998 murder of a 21-year-old college student by a pair of local punks who couldn't stand that he was gay.
"He came into the world premature," Matthew Shepard's parents say in an early statement about their diminutive son, "and left premature."
The separate trials of his young killers are excerpted here, as is the courtroom statement that Shepard's father (Terry Kinney) made to one of them, saying he would "like nothing better than to see you die," yet advocating "mercy for someone who refused to show any mercy." It's a lump-in-the-throat moment without false sentiment from director Kaufman. Although Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson are in prison for the murder, how much of the town is culpable? "Does Laramie grow children like that here?" a resident wonders. Don't expect facile answers.
Instead, you get overlapping realities here, for this is a movie about the researching of a play about what Shepard's murder says about Laramie. In other words, the "project" is the play, and vice versa. Unfolding quasi-documentary style, it is intensely moving in its simplicity, the economy of its ensemble cast's performances belying the brutal nature of the crime Kaufman (Nestor Carbonell) and members of his New York theater company hear about as they gather material in Laramie. This contrast in tones somehow makes what happened all the more shocking.
Among those interviewed by the troupe are the police officer (Amy Madigan), who exposed herself to the AIDS virus at the crime scene; the University of Wyoming's first "out" lesbian professor (Janeane Garofalo); another professor (Camryn Manheim), who feels the play will be therapeutic for the community; and a shopkeeper (Margo Martindale) and her sister (Christina Ricci), who knew Shepard well.
Through this interviewing device, Kaufman relates with acute clarity the magnitude of bigotry and compassion that co-exist uneasily in this Wyoming city whose residents maintain repeatedly here that they "live and let live."
If so, this story asks, how was it that Shepard was savagely beaten because of his sexual orientation, bound to a rural fence like a rag doll and left to die, his highly publicized murder making him a poster victim in the battle against homophobia?
Is Laramie necessarily a metaphor for wider prejudice? That's hard to calculate, especially with other crimes that have occurred since, including the recent murder of a gay man in Santa Barbara who was set on fire in his sleep. Yet the rudimentary fence is shown repeatedly, becoming a symbol of the divide separating Laramie's more enlightened residents and those who condemn Shepard's "lifestyle" as aggressively as they do his murder. "The media is portraying him as a saint," protests one woman (Laura Linney), who believes Shepard provoked his killers and that he "flaunted" being gay.
Although unseen, Shepard looms indelibly here in the memories of those who knew and liked him. "Laramie sparkles, doesn't it?" limo driver Doc O'Connor (Steve Buscemi) recalls him saying one evening about the city's lights, a blue glow bouncing off the clouds and visible even from the lonely spot where he was fatally beaten and lashed to the fence. Those lights, O'Connor adds, may have been "the last thing he saw on this earth."
"The Laramie Project" premieres tonight at 8 on HBO. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under 14).