Picks and Pans Review: Fatal Vision

updated 11/19/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/19/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

NBC (Sunday, Nov. 18, 9 p.m. ET)

Whoever killed Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald's wife and two daughters had to be a madman, so sick was the method of death, so thick the blood. MacDonald, a Green Beret, claimed that a bunch of hippies did it. A jury, eventually, said that it was MacDonald. Fatal Vision, based on Joe McGinniss' crime epic, tells this gripping if gruesome true story with tremendous finesse. If you read the headlines about Jeff MacDonald from 1970 on—portraying him first as a tragic victim, then as a suspect cleared, finally as a murderer—you know how the case turns out. But that doesn't steal any suspense from the mini; it is still fascinating to see it all unfold. Director David Greene—an Emmy winner for Roots, Friendly Fire, The People Next Door and Rich Man, Poor Man—and his editors (Parke Singh and Bill Stitch) take the complex threads of the story and weave them tightly, switching scenes quickly, building the case for MacDonald the first night, against him the second. In the end you're led to lean one way—but not quite all the way; you're never 100 percent sure of the truth. Newcomer Gary Cole, a beefy actor with a glint in his eye that's sometimes sympathetic and sometimes slightly psycho, plays MacDonald with admirable restraint. You can't decide whether to cry for him or curse at him when he tells his version of the murders and screams hysterically, "I couldn't stop 'em!" Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint play Mac-Donald's in-laws, who defend him and then track him down; Malden, especially, puts his soul into the role. And the cast fills out nicely with Barry Newman as MacDonald's attorney, Andy Griffith and Gary (The Burning Bed) Grubbs as his prosecutors, and Wendy (Where the Boys Are) Schaal as his wife, seen in flashbacks. It's not perfect: The trial scenes drag a bit. But still, Fatal Vision is superb TV. Part Two airs Monday.

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