Take a letter

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

With the launch of the feature documentary initiative MSNBC Films, the cable news network seems intent to give a little less non-anchored airtime to serial killers in favor of high-quality nonfiction filmmaking. The first doc to air under the new imprint, Kurt Kuenne's emotionally wrenching Dear Zachary, sets a high bar for what's to come.

It covers a true story that sounds like it could've been made up for Lifetime. In 2001, 28-year-old Dr. Andrew Bagby, Kuenne's lifelong friend, was found murdered. After his estranged girlfriend, number-one suspect Shirley Turner, announced she was pregnant and Bagby was the father, Kuenne began work on a testament to his late friend, a truly beloved individual, for the child.

Driven by circumstance and raw anger, Kuenne expands his scope beyond commemoration into an indictment of Canada's legal and extradition systems following Turner's flight to Newfoundland. It's also a portrait of strength and nobility provided by Bagby's parents and their efforts to gain custody of grandson Zachary.

Dear Zachary is easily one of the most personal, passionate nonfiction works ever seen. It's an approach that can kill a documentary's effectiveness, but here it enhances. Except for an unflattering special effect that seems a bit like payback, Kuenne's intimate approach is also professional, capturing the facts and ramifications of the case as well as the frustration and horror of living in the middle of it.

"Dear Zachary"

Premieres 9 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, MSNBC

Grade: A-