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A Force of Nurture Preview: As a zealously God-fearing mother and wife, Laura Dern blows the many 'Ruby Ridge' flaws to smithereens. She's a made-for-TV marvel.

"Ruby Ridge: An American Tragedy" -- a two-night CBS docudrama about the government shootout with white separatist Randy Weaver -- is so badly matched that each night almost seems like a different film.

But running through both is an astounding performance by Academy-Award winner Laura Dern as Weaver's wife, Vicky. It is the made-for-television-movie performance of the year -- good enough to put an otherwise seriously flawed "Ruby Ridge" on the map of must-see weekend viewing.

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The most egregious flaws in the four-hour film, starring Randy Quaid as Weaver, are found in its handling of the social and political questions raised by and at Ruby Ridge -- the 1992 shootout that occurred when U.S. marshalls attempted to arrest Weaver at his remote mountaintop property on charges of selling guns to an undercover federal officer. Three people were killed: a marshall, Vicky and Weaver's 14-year-old son, Sammy.

The standoff between the Weaver family and federal law-enforcement authorities was in one sense a debate with heavy gunfire about the rights of citizens to stockpile arms vs. the government's right to go after people who sell sawed-off shotguns for a living, as Weaver did. But such social context seems beyond the folks responsible for making this docudrama. Worse, they don't seem to have a clue about the '90s phenomenon of people moving to the fringes of society, declaring themselves a law unto themselves and then dying for it at the hands of other Americans wearing badges.

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There is a point-of-view by default in this film. Television tends to paint in somewhat sympathetic colors the people it portrays in such long-form programs. You can't have a face as likable and well-known as Quaid's on camera for four hours -- beginning with his wedding and following him to church, dinner with his family and Bible study groups in his home -- without suggesting there are large streaks of decency and caring in this Vietnam vet, father and husband.

But to watch the migration of the Weaver family from seemingly ordinary religious people to folks out on the fringe -- literally -- of politics, religion and society is to marvel at Dern's performance.

In this telling, it is Vicky Weaver who was the more religious of the two and, when she and Randy become parents, her zeal to live as she believes the Bible tells her to becomes paramount. The idea that Judgment Day is near somehow became sharply focused in Vicky Weaver's mind, and Dern infuses her performance with this sense of urgency.

Vicky believes that the Bible is written in a code discernible to true believers -- of which she is one -- and that messages arrive daily from God pointing the way. Not for a moment do we ever feel like we are seeing an actress playing a role. Dern disappears into the character and virtually every scene she is in mesmerizes -- as she confidently goes about getting her family closer to God while discussing lunch meat with a neighbor, for example.

Quaid, meanwhile, approaches the character of Randy Weaver sympathetically as a Vietnam vet who is looking for something to fill his post-war life. But that take never jibes with the horrifying racist and anti-Semitic utterances coming from his mouth or his conviction that race wars and armed battles with the forces of Godlessness are impending.

Tomorrow night's installment, which airs at 9, is one movie. It is about seeing how strange the Weavers can get, and it belongs totally to Dern. Part two -- airing Tuesday night at 9 -- is a different film, greatly resembling a guerrilla war between the Weavers and the forces of the federal government.

After the last bullet has been fired and Weaver looks at all the death and destruction around him, he seems amazed and clueless about all that has happened to him and his family on Ruby Ridge. The problem is that the filmmakers are amazed and clueless about all of it, too.

'Ruby Ridge'

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Starring: Laura Dern and Randy Quaid

When: 9 p.m. tomorrow, Tuesday

& Where: WJZ, Channel 13

Pub Date: 5/18/96


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