The first must-see of 2003, Capturing the Friedmans would be a great documentary even if it were just a straightforward investigation into the Friedman case. In the late Eighties, at the height of the McMartin hysteria, Arnold Friedman was taken into custody by the Great Neck police after receiving child porn in the mail. A nightmare ensues for Friedman, a nebbish computer teacher, who, along with his youngest son Jessie, was subsequently accused of molesting and sodomizing students who came to his house for computer lessons.
As anyone who read anything on the subject knows (a lengthy piece on McMartin in the New Yorker that I read in the early 90s leaves an impression to this day), just the accusation of ritual child molestation provokes a kind of mass hysteria that tramples all over any honest attempt at fact-gathering and sober evaluations, making defense of the accused well-nigh impossible. And as just an objective case study on Protect the Children hysteria and prosecutorial zeal, Friedmans rivals the superb Paradise Lost. Jerecki deftly balances a perspective (he leaves little doubt where he stands on the Friedmans' guilt and innocence) with balanced reporting; the other side is never made to look like a bunch of Javerts. The viewer couldn't be blamed if she concluded that Arnold did in fact do something wrong, even if it wasn't anything as implausible and outrageous as what had been alleged.
But that "Did they, or didn't they?" aspect is just a small part of what makes the film so compelling. As it turns out, the Friedmans were inveterate videophiles, documenting on tape everything from birthday parties to mundane moments of jostling to Arnold playing on the piano. And when the case hit, cameras were there to capture an extraordinarily tight-knit (at least among the males) family bursting apart at the seams. This footage is incredible. The squabbling and hating is excruciating to behold, but what's even more heartbreaking is seeing the fraying of the deep, committed and unconditional love Arnold and the sons have for one another, like a reality show version of Cassavetes' Love Streams.
As emotionally wrenching as it is, though, what I found most impressive wasn't the family drama or the jawdropping video footage. Jarecki, by expertly manipulating the way information is dispensed, forces the viewer not only to consider and reconsider what is presented, but something even more important: he asks us to reflect how we judge. By revealing a crucial and damning detail concerning Arnold 2/3rds of the way through, the film gives the viewer see the accused not as a monster with "proclivities" but as a devoted family man. When the bombshell is dropped, we're forced to process that unsympathetic trait with the judgment we've already rendered on the guy. For my part, the character revelation created a certain cognitive dissonance that forced me to re-evaluate all of my conclusions and everything I've seen. "How important should this character evidence be? Does an inclination make him likely to be guilty of molestation? Is this man, whom I had believed was fundamentally decent if repressed, now just a another sicko? And what's behind his sickness?"
As my mind raced with questions, Jarecki kept up, detailing the background and elaborating on the nuanced manifestation thereof. He never turns it into The Answer Which Explains Everything. Few films have shown people in all their human glory -- full of love, hate, lust, devotion, fear, self-loathing, guilt -- like this one does with the Friedmans. If you think it's easy to box people in or render easy judgments about someone, Capturing the Friedmans will school you on life, people and their infinite mysteries