Blue Caprice is the first significant theatrical film about the Beltway sniper attacks of 2002.
Isn’t that strange? The tragic, shocking events of that October remain hard to grapple with. On the one hand, to tell the story of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo’s crime spree requires great narrative breadth. The same could be said of the police investigation, which took a number of twists and turns before the two men were finally apprehended. Yet for the community, this was not a linear narrative. It was a period of constant anticipation, sudden developments and media panic. One could argue that this temporal complexity almost necessitates cinematic storytelling.
Granted, this narrative balancing act could also make the prospect of crafting a film around the attacks all the more intimidating. The Beltway sniper attacks do not neatly fit into our understanding of America’s 21st century history. This was only 13 months after the attacks of September 11th, 2001, we should remember. The United States was at war in Afghanistan and beginning to shape the War on Terror. Muhammad and Malvo’s assault on the capital region therefore simultaneously sits both as an anomaly in modern American history and as a crucial event that helped shape the current character of the nation.
All of this should be taken into account when thinking about Blue Caprice. The film, directed by Alexandre Moors, is specifically the narrative of Muhammad and Malvo. Its focus is the “why” of the attacks rather than the “how,” and it completely avoids the more complicated questions around their long term impact. As a result the film just doesn’t offer all that much to a contemporary audience. It’s stuck in the past, without an eye on the present.
Yet there’s something intriguing about the way in which Blue Caprice is trapped in the amber of the early 2000s. It disguises itself as a purely psychological film, showing the control Muhammad (Isaiah Washington) exerted on the young Malvo (Tequan Richmond). The powerful father figure’s growing insanity is disturbing to watch, and Washington inhabits that lunatic paranoia with great conviction. But Moors is doing something else, crafting another theme around him.
Bluntly, if perhaps reductively, one could say that Blue Caprice colors Muhammad’s sociopathic mission with a reading of American social and cultural violence. In one moment Moors even cuts directly from a shot of the two men’s use of guns to a bombing in Afghanistan shown on television. Malvo meets military recruiters and he plays violent video games with Muhammad’s friend Ray (Tim Blake Nelson). There are even a few appearances by everyone’s favorite tired metaphor for the alienation of American consumerism: the well-lit supermarket.
The end result is a film that spends so much time dealing with why Muhammad and Malvo became killers, that it spends essentially no time dealing with the violence itself and its implications. The two murderers do not even arrive in the capital region until about 70 minutes into the 93-minute film. Of course, this could be a good thing. There’s plenty of uncharted territory for a future documentary filmmaker.
But rather than speculate blindly, it might help to look at what already exists. There are a handful of TV specials, along with an hour-long documentary by Barbara Kopple that aired on TruTV in 2008 and isn’t currently available. Some of these also focus entirely on the killers, like the episode of BET’s American Gangsters series. However, one of them is a very useful bridge between journalistic retelling of the events and historical analysis that looks to the future. It’s a 2011 episode of the Biography Channel’s Aftermath with William Shatner. No, I am not kidding. [You can buy this episode via Amazon Instant.]
The format of this nonfiction series is simple and somewhat charmingly cheap. William Shatner sits in a makeshift living room on a darkened set and talks to the survivors of a particularly dramatic or violent event. In this case he interviews three people who were shot by the snipers and survived. Paul LaRuffa was shot six times at close range at his restaurant in Clinton, Maryland on September 5th, 2002. Malvo and Muhammad robbed him and used the money to finance their shooting spree. Kellie Adams was shot on September 21st in Alabama and would only be tied to the snipers after the fact. Caroline Seawall was shot in Fredericksburg on October 4th, the first victim of the snipers in Virginia.
This is about history as therapy. Shatner is like a charismatic, slightly confused amateur therapist with a horrendous poker face. LaRuffa, Adams and Seawall tell him of their experiences and respond to pointed, empathetic questions from their host. The goal is long-term recovery, the slow reconstitution of a sense of calm after living through tragedy. While LaRuffa and Sewall have rebuilt their lives more thoroughly, Adams is still in a great deal of pain. Shatner helps her through it, helping her reinterpret her history to find a new life.
This single episode of a nonfiction television series is the closest we’ve come to a documentary that examines and interprets the historical implications of the Beltway sniper attacks. It examines the events themselves and then, through discussion and empathetic analysis, discerns how they have impacted the lives of those involved. Yet its focus is narrow. A great documentary film might apply the same therapeutic approach to the whole country rather than individual victims, placing the events within the context of post-9/11 America and looking at how the period of fear caused by Muhammad and Malvo altered our society.
Such a film does not exist. However, there are models in other media. The Baltimore Sun’s original coverage of the Beltway sniper attacks was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News Reporting back in 2003. Last year the paper ran a retrospective article by Matthew Hay Brown that combines a personal and national approach to history and hints at what a feature-length documentary might look like.
The piece builds its narrative through a group of interviews. Brown talked to LaRuffa, who offers his own personal story of flashbacks and moving on. He also talked to Vickie Snider, whose brother James Buchanan was killed on October 3rd, the first day of the attacks in Montgomery County, Maryland. Her testimony is also deeply personal, but she ties the events of 2002 to her reaction to other shootings in the years since. Brown features not only her reactions to the Virginia Tech and Aurora, Colorado incidents but also her dismay over the expiration of the assault weapons ban in 2004.
Brown also includes quotes from Doug Duncan, the Montgomery County executive at the time, and University of Maryland Professor of Clinical Psychology Carl Lejuez. The two explain the mental and emotional impact on the community both during and after the attacks and begin to touch on the unique status of this crisis within American history. Obviously newspapers and cinema have a whole slew of inherent differences in expression (Brown is not able to show the temporal tensions of the period in the same way, for example) but the journalistic core of nonfiction storytelling is shared.
As Americans continue to struggle through national understanding of 9/11 and the 12 years since, nonfiction cinema plays an important role. Yet, as I explored in the last installment of Shapes of History, there’s a long way to go. A crucial piece of this history is the role of domestic terrorism, and the Beltway sniper attacks are a central event. Blue Caprice is an interesting attempt, but it’s only the very beginning of a conversation. A feature documentary on the shootings would be an important, profound undertaking. If Shatner doesn’t want to do it himself, someone else should.