Unbelievable story propels ‘Dear Zachary’ documentary

Posted Nov. 20, 2008, at 5:26 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:02 a.m.

In limited release

DEAR ZACHARY: A Letter to a Son About His Father, written and directed by Kurt Kuenne, 95 minutes, not rated.

Kurt Kuenne’s heartbreaking new documentary, “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father,” features a story that, if fictionalized for, say, the purpose of a novel, likely would be labeled “outrageous” by an editor, stamped with a swift mark of rejection, and sent packing to the mailroom.

And it would be tough to blame the editor for doing so.

What occurs in this movie only could happen in real life — the frail walls of fiction couldn’t sustain it. The events that unfold are too bizarre. The way the story escalates is too steep. And when the floor does give way, the drop is too far to fathom.

This is the story of one man’s murder, and the fierce ripple of events that rang out in the wake of the five bullets that claimed his life. You sit watching the movie in a kind of haze, thinking that what happens here couldn’t possibly happen the way it happened, and yet it did happen. It’s staggering to believe it happened.

Unable to contain his rage, writer-director Kuenne doesn’t even try to conceal it. For a less-skilled director, this might have been a problem — the movie could have lost focus. The rage might have overwhelmed the facts.

But not so here. Kuenne’s fury at the injustice done to his best friend Andrew Bagby, a doctor who was set up and gunned down in Latrobe, Penn., by his ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner, doesn’t detract or make for a lesser movie. In fact, it allows for one of the year’s most powerful movies, with Kuenne achieving a keen, almost rabid focus as he zeros in on each of the many wrongs done to Bagby and his steadfast parents, David and Kathleen.

If too much is revealed here, the movie’s impact will be ruined, so I’ll be cagey with the particulars, which some readers likely already know given that the movie’s events are chronicled in David Bagby’s best-selling book, “Dance With the Devil.” For others, it’s safe to say this: After murdering Andrew, the Canadian-born Turner fled to St. John’s, Newfoundland, where a battle for her extradition was fought in court over the course of several months.

Since it’s revealed in the film’s title, one complication can be noted — turns out that Turner was pregnant with Andrew’s child, whom she gave birth to and named Zachary. Upon learning of this pregnancy, David and Kathleen, who once considered suicide in the wake of Andrew’s death, left the U.S. and moved to Newfoundland.

There, they launched into one maddening fight for their son’s son. Since Turner was free on bail and had custody of Zachary, that meant they had to form a civil relationship with their son’s murderer in order to see Zachary and make sure he was safe from this obviously troubled woman. They did this day in and day out, while the Canadian court system routinely shamed itself in ways best left for the screen.

Surrounding all this isn’t just the ache of loss felt by Andrew’s parents, which is so palpable, it burns, but also of his many friends and family, who are interviewed in ways that not only show us who Andrew was as a man, but also in ways that move the story forward. And where that goes, I’m not going.

“Dear Zachary” is currently being promoted for Academy Award consideration, where it will be taken seriously. For those seeking a profound, unshakable movie, it’s worth a call to your local cinema to ask that they show it.

Grade: A

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New on DVD and Blu-ray disc

Now out on DVD is the limited collector’s edition of “300,” which, regardless of all the extras included in the set, is still just a movie about beefcake gone berserk. Set in the fifth century B.C., the film follows the three-day Battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 bellowing, muscle-bound Spartans got pumped up to rumble against a million Persians.

It’s something of an understatement to say that they were outnumbered, but as the movie sees it, they nevertheless were gifted soldiers aided considerably (or screwed considerably — you decide) by Sparta’s King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), who led the fight and, as history tells us, lost it in a crimson rush of valor.

For a film filled with so many characters, there isn’t one fully realized individual in the mix — not Leonidas, who bellows from his bowels as if he just sat on the Hot Gates themselves; not the Persian emperor Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), who is one wig shy from becoming RuPaul; and not Leonidas’ enemy Theron (Dominic West), whose evil fails to spark a half-cooked subplot involving Leonidas’ wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey).

That said, you have to hand it to Warner — for fans of the movie (I’m not one), they’ve given them a collector’s edition to savor. The set includes a 52-page art-photo book, a lucite display that features an image from the movie, collectible postcards and a new bonus disc filled with extras.

Faring better is Warner’s release of Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” which is just out on Blu-ray and stars Kevin Costner in one of his better performances, and also HBO’s Blu-ray release of “Band of Brothers,” the Emmy Award-winning, World War II series based on Stephen E. Ambrose’s best-selling book. The latter remains one of the most involving, well-acted examinations of war combat ever produced specifically for television, with the men of Easy Company given their due in a grueling series produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.

By far, these last two titles are among the week’s best new releases.

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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