As someone from Montgomery County, I have to say I found it shocking when I heard this movie was going to be made. The event had happened so recently. It was just three years ago that I sat in traffic for 3 hours while they checked cars all over the beltway and beyond, and just three years ago when every local landmark I knew was suddenly a target.
The USA cable television network had a compelling story and it rode script full throttle into a brick wall. Even if the idea of profiting from a shooting spree that terrorized thousands and shocked millions wasn't morally repugnant, USA's D.C. Sniper: 23 Days of Fear, a movie adaptation of the events that unfolded three years ago in Montgomery County, just shouldn't have gone forward.
To begin with, the network, strange as this may sound, had very little material to work with. The two snipers were, of course, unknown at the time the crimes went down, so an overriding sense of mystery and panic is left to take center stage instead of any person. The tale lacks a hero, leaving Ex-Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose, the face of the good guys on the news, as the only logical choice for a main character. However, his bumbling performances in front of the media and his limited ability to affect the course of events make also make Moose, played by Charles S. Dutton (A Time to Kill, Alien 3), a weak focal point for the movie.
Still, USA trudged along, and Moose was indeed made the main character. His fiery attitude behind the news cameras shows a different side of Moose than the public saw in 2002, though whether or not the depiction is accurate is anyone's guess, as Dutton has reportedly never met Moose. The two do resemble one another, though Moose looks like Dutton after going on the Subway diet. The failings of the movie really can't be placed on Dutton's shoulders, because he did all he possibly could have done with such a weak role.
County Executive Doug Duncan, portrayed by Jay O. Sanders (Glory, Angels in the Outfield), gets thrown in as a secondary main character. But his involvement in the investigation seems minimal. In the movie, Duncan is relegated to advising Moose, though his main purpose seems to be interacting with his family to show what home life has become as a result of the attacks. In this capacity, he's a dud. Duncan's family is protected by the police, so his experience would have been far different than the majority of Montgomery County residents, myself included. Perhaps if the film had focused on a fictional character in the middle of the chaos, the audience would have gotten a more true-to-life sense of what happened.
Director Tom McLoughlin, the writer and director of the Friday the 13th: The Series, makes some odd decisions in the film. McLoughlin attempts to vilify the media in several scenes, incorporating the tarot card leak and other seemingly disastrous blows various news affiliates inflicted on the investigation into the plot. The idea is not unique, as many movies show the news networks as vicious, amoral organizations. However, the WAY he presents the idea IS unique and rather two-dimensional. All the no-good, awful, rotten, mean things that, in McLoughlin's mind, the media represents are embodied by one man who pesters the police for and then leaks information. His over-the-top performance comes complete with sinister grins and an uncanny ability to make information materialize out of nowhere.
The film does take an interesting look at the relationship between John Muhammad, played by Bobby Hosea, and John Lee Malvo, played by Trent Cameron. This is the one aspect of the film that's genuinely new and interesting to watch. The movie shows Malvo as a complete subordinate to Muhammad, willing to take whatever orders his "father" gives him. The panic that crosses Malvo's face each time he feels out of control of a situation is quite believable, and Muhammad's weird mixture of fatherly pride and calculated cruelty is strangely creepy to observe.
Still, this one somewhat bright spot doesn't make up for the rest of the problems in the movie. While the various crime scenes and characters all bear a passable resemblance to the real places and people (I've seen them all), minor errors plague the movie, sometimes making watching difficult to those who know the story well. At one point, Duncan is referred to as "mayor" despite the fact that he holds no such office.
The movie is punctuated by a horrendous concluding scene wherein Moose does his best to defend his actions, and the producers try to put a positive spin on an unspectacular ending when Moose announces the boy who got shot early on isn't going to die. (Just an FYI: Moose later wrote a book about the events and was forced out of his position because of it) It's hard to make a movie based on a crime spree that really doesn't lend itself well to character development. It's even harder to find sympathy for a network that exploits tragedy.