Published October 14, 2003
BALTIMORE – Less than a year after the arrests of John Allen Muhammad (search) and Lee Boyd Malvo (search), the first movie about the shootings that terrorized the suburbs and exurbs of the nation's capital is here.
"D.C. Sniper: 23 Days of Fear," which premieres 9 p.m. EDT Friday on USA, was admittedly rushed through production to be finished while the shooting spree was still fresh in people's minds.
(Also keeping it fresh in their minds: Tuesday's scheduled start of Muhammad's trial.)
Following books about the sniper probe by Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose (search) and two Washington Post reporters, this relatively evenhanded docudrama doesn't reveal much.
And while it's nearly impossible to replicate the feeling of waking up every morning wondering if there's going to be another shooting, the movie does capture both the pervasive anxiety of the region and the stunning randomness of the attacks.
"The main question would be, 'Is it too early?' And my answer to that is, 'This is America. We move on very fast,"' says Charles S. Dutton, who stars as Moose. "I didn't want to do anything exploitative or disrespectful to the victims' families, and I don't think this is."
Not only does Dutton bear a passing resemblance to Moose, he also has ties to the area. A Baltimore native, he lives on a farm in Howard County, Montgomery's neighbor to the north.
"I was physically here during just about all the shootings, and those guys were captured maybe 15 miles from my place," Dutton says by phone from his home. "So although I was maybe 30 miles north of where everything was happening, you could still really feel the anxiety in my area."
Director Tom McLoughlin and screenwriter Dave Erickson, who also collaborated on USA's "Murder in Greenwich," did as much research as they could in the time they had -- speaking with investigators and Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, among others.
But Moose, who was embroiled in a dispute with the county's ethics commission over whether he could write his book, was not involved with the project. And Dutton, who was performing on Broadway throughout preproduction, came to the set cold.
"I've never met Charles Moose. He wasn't on the set. I finished the play April 4, flew to Vancouver April 5 and we were shooting April 6. I had no rehearsal time," Dutton says. "So one thing I didn't try to do is try to capture his speech patterns or dialect because I really didn't have time to work on that."
Dutton did, however, study tapes of Moose's news conferences. "At the podium, he had a certain pensiveness. You could see him thinking before he answered a question. That was really fun to play, that introspection."
"D.C. Sniper" cuts quickly between the investigation and the alleged shooters, Muhammad (Bobby Hosea) and Malvo (Trent Cameron), as they pick out their targets, elude dragnets and try to initiate communication with investigators. While certain elements are exaggerated, it's still shocking to see their phone calls ignored and see them slip away from police because they didn't match what investigators were looking for.
Still, inaccuracies are likely to needle those who followed the case closely, particularly those who live in the region. A passer-by greets Doug Duncan (Jay O. Sanders) with "Good morning, Mayor Duncan" (he's not the mayor of anything); Moose pops up at crime scenes, even those out of his jurisdiction, just minutes after the shootings, when in reality he was holed up at police headquarters.
Ultimately, there are few surprises in "D.C. Sniper." While Dutton has some powerful moments, he plays Moose largely as the world saw him: at times steely and determined, at times bumbling and frustrated, at times overcome with emotion at the plight of the victims.
"When these cases are so known by the public and things have been painted in the light that they've been painted, I don't think this movie's going to surprise anybody," McLoughlin says. "I think they just get a little insight into how it happened."
But McLoughlin stands by the decision to get the movie out quickly: "There was still so much commotion attached to it that I could still feel the fear. Ten years later, you've got some distance, but the re-creation of it is not as valuable."