We’re seeing a minor trend lately of documentaries nostalgically revisiting criminal cases of the 1990s, some of them acknowledging that it was the early days of cable news and reality television, and the media as a whole was moving towards practices we take for granted today. One thing these films don’t seem to do is address how unnecessary they are because of how much the stories were already documented at the time. Even if O.J.: Trial of the Century is exceptional in its chronological compilation of reports, it’s still just a repeat, and even if The Price of Gold has people presently recalling and reflecting on the events of the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal, that 30 for 30 doc is really just intent on re-showing iconic clips and reminding us of how heavily covered it was.
Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart is different, going above and beyond what it needs to be and really deeply examining the case of a woman whose 1991 murder trial was one the first ever aired in its entirety on television. In a way, it’s not really a documentary about Pamela Smart, only using her story as a perfect example of how the over-mediation and sensationalist exploitation of crimes like her husband’s killing wind up effecting the outcome. Director Jeremiah Zagar (In a Dream) even got a journalism professor to explain the relevant Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, but it’s not all as simple as the observed changing for the sake of the cameras. This doc is also and perhaps more so concerned with how observation changes the observer.
Smart has been in prison for the last 23 years, serving a life sentence for plotting the murder with her teenage lover and his friends. But she maintains her innocence, appearing in Captivated with hope that it might clear her name and lead to exoneration. Surprisingly, given her reputation for loving the spotlight during the investigation, she doesn’t exhibit the attention-starved manner we see in The Price of Gold’s Harding or Tabloid’s Joyce McKinney, and the film doesn’t ever, in hand, treat her like a sideshow attraction. Zagar might even believe her, although this isn’t the sort of film that attempts to free its subject, and it doesn’t bother to get down to showing us the real human being behind all of the notoriety and public perception. Smart isn’t even in the doc that much.
If you’re not familiar with Smart’s story, maybe you know of the fictionalized version adapted as Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, starring Nicole Kidman in a role based on her. Or perhaps you happened to see the CBS TV movie Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Wojas Smart Story, featuring Helen Hunt in the lead. There were many other movies and tabloid news programs with less dramatized takes on the case, some of them airing before her trial began. Combined with the regular news coverage of the story, the frenzy obviously made it very difficult for a jury to be selected. Not only because everyone in the area had heard about it, but also because just about everyone was quick to judge her without all the facts and evidence. It was a a prime example of how the accused are guilty until proven innocent in the eyes of the media and subsequently the eyes of its consumers.
What’s not heard about as often is how the persistence of a negative image or even simply an image maintains that guilty perception. Apparently those movies that came after the conviction as well as the continued tabloid attention have harmed Smart’s ability to get an appeal. Some of the people tied to the case who now appear for interviews in the film also admit to having memories clouded by the two dramas, which blend together in their minds, never mind that after more than two decades memory is already difficult to go by. Actually mind that, because Zagar got a professor to tell us all about it. The filmmaker seems to have covered all the bases in order to make Captivated one of the most carefully planned out true crime docs since The Thin Blue Line.
Like Errol Morris’s 1988 classic, this is a film about perspective and what influences our ways of seeing things. It also employs a device that on paper sounds cheesy — Captivated begins and ends with a theater curtain opened to show a television set on a stage broadcasting clips from Smart’s trial, and throughout the doc footage from the trial is presented on the screens of other sets in living rooms, bars and dentist’s offices. But it works tremendously, in part because Zagar clearly put a lot of thought and effort into having a consistent design and concept, and we can get what he’s saying with the propped up, emblematic gimmickry. It might be reason for some viewers to dislike the film, but pretty much everything else in Captivated is a prop, too, including and in particular the people. Definitely Smart.
That makes me think that one day Zagar will make another doc on Smart where he comes to terms with how he made this one, but then again he’s no Nick Broomfield (see Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer) and he doesn’t ever necessarily do her wrong by the film. If anything, in spite of how much it’s devoted to motifs and a theme and plays like it was produced specifically to be taught in documentary theory classes, Captivated still manages to make the viewer question the way the trial was conducted and who had motives to lie on the stand and what it means to narrativize a crime for either the jury or a TV audience, all the way up to whether it’s fair regardless of her guilt for Smart to have been sentenced to life without parole. And of course it still manages to put into doubt her guilt, at least at various times during the film.
What makes Captivated fall short of being the consummate midpoint between Morris’s The Thin Blue Line and Tabloid is how lacking it is in personality. It’s hard to make this a criticism since it’s what works for the film, but there aren’t any memorable characters, and that definitely goes for Smart with her understandably cheerless demeanor. The rest are mainly academics, TV hosts, lawyers — not the most fun sorts of individuals. The warmest character is by far the one who is portrayed solely through shots of a dictaphone playing a tape of her voice, and she’s also the most intriguing. None of this is a huge knock to the film overall, but the lack of a certain humanity will keep it from being a re-watched doc.
This review was originally published on August 18, 2014.