Capturing the Friedmans (United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Various articles have labeled Capturing the Friedmans as a narrative documentary, a crime investigation, a meditation upon the nature of truth, and an expose of the failings of the United States judicial system. First and foremost, however, it is an American tragedy – a look inside a criminal case that shines a light into the dark, ugly corners of suburbia, then turns that same light on various other aspects of crime & punishment. Like the unforgettable Paradise Lost, this movie shows that the legal system is often cruelly unconcerned about the concept of justice, and that a plea of "guilty" or "not guilty" doesn't necessarily reflect whether the defendant did or didn't commit the crime.

The facts, as laid out by the media when the case broke in 1987, were apparently straightforward. A respected Long Island teacher, Arnold Friedman, was arrested on charges of child molestation when investigators learned that participants in a computer class he conducted in his home claimed to have been sexually abused. The shadow of doubt spread, falling on Arnold's youngest son, 18-year old Jesse, who was ultimately accused of more than 200 criminal counts ranging from sodomy to child endangerment. Both men pled guilty and were sentenced to prison. Arnold died behind bars. Jesse was released after 13 years.

Capturing the Friedmans, directed by first-time filmmaker Andrew Jarecki (one of the co-founders of the popular phone service and Internet site, Moviefone), delves beneath the headlines to try for deeper understanding. What he finds is confusion and contradiction. Employing interviews with David and Jesse Friedman (two of Arnold's three sons; the third, Seth, declined to participate), and their mother, Elaine, as well as home movies and video taken during the course of the investigation, Jarecki has assembled a compelling documentary that questions both the investigative process and the results. Most viewers will leave the theater with more questions than they arrived with. Capturing the Friedmans doesn't offer many answers. Even Jarecki, who viewed hundreds of hours worth of material not in the film, admits to not knowing the truth.

The behind-the-scenes approach reveals a number of interesting facts. Although Arnold was an admitted pedophile who kept a stack of child porn and acknowledged inappropriate relationships with two minors, he denied all of the accusations in this case. Several of the boys who attended the computer class stated that nothing had happened. One lied about the Friedmans to get the police to leave him alone. And another "recalled" the molestation only after being placed under hypnosis (a means of therapy during which suggestions can be placed in a subject's mind). The police were convinced that Arnold and Jesse were guilty, and they pursued this avenue by pressuring and manipulating possible witnesses. The lawyers, especially Jesse's, give every sign of being incompetent. In the end, while one can reasonably argue that Arnold got what he deserved, the indications are that Jesse was railroaded and ended up serving time for a crime he did not commit.

The psychology of a community's reaction is undoubtedly one of the reasons why things developed as they did. One of the experts interviewed for Capturing the Friedmans (Debbie Nathan) makes the point that in neighborhoods where this sort of scandal unravels, a "culture of victimization" occurs. Families who are not involved are excluded, and there is even competition between impacted families about who was more traumatized. ("My son was sodomized six times. Yours was only sodomized five times.") Take this kind of a social climate, add the national hysteria about pedophilia and child molestation, and stir in police strong-arm tactics, and it seems clear that the charges against Jesse could have been unjust.

One curious thing about the film is that the Friedmans had this much video footage to make available to Jarecki. Seemingly every family argument after Arnold's arrest was captured on videotape. There's something a little creepy and voyeuristic about watching some of the material, because it is so candid. One has to assume that, had the Friedmans gone through this experience today, they would have webcams in every room of the house. Nothing in the home-made video clarifies the questions of guilt or innocence. Arnold is evasive, Jesse is dazed, and Elaine spends most of the time yelling.

The film develops portraits of its four main subjects. Arnold, whose character is pieced together entirely via the video footage and the word pictures of others, comes across as a somewhat pathetic individual. Like so many pedophiles, he was apparently a loving father leading a "normal" life and hiding a terrible secret. Jesse is portrayed as an innocent victim who still can't believe what happened to him. David is pretty much in denial. Elaine, Arnold's ex-wife, seems cold and bitter during her interview segments, but some of the video depicts her as a nasty, vindictive shrew. Yet her reunion with Jesse may be the movie's most touching moment.

There is humor in Capturing the Friedmans, but even that, like everything else in the film, is underpinned by a sense of profound sadness. The film is as powerful as any narrative motion picture in telling a story that rips at the emotions. As facts are revealed, we find our sympathies switching from one individual to another. In the end, while Jarecki may not be able to answer our most basic questions about the guilt or innocence of the Friedmans, he makes a profound statement that, in situations like this, no one can be completely innocent and everyone is a victim.

Capturing the Friedmans (United States, 2003)

Director: Andrew Jarecki
Cast: David Friedman, Arnold Friedman, Jesse Friedman, Elaine Friedman
Screenplay: Andrew Jarecki
Cinematography: Adolfo Doring
Music: Andrea Morricone
U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2003-06-07
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1