One of my favorite poker games is a variation of 7 Card Stud called "no-peek". As the name implies the player doesn't look at his hand, instead putting the cards face down and turning them over one at a time until he either tops the previous hand or is forced to fold. The game requires no skill. But you do have to pay if you want to see all the cards on the table. And that's usually enough drama to keep everyone in the game.
Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki unfolds a similar game in his new documentary “Capturing The Friedmans.” The stakes are high: the lives and reputations of a Long Island family who appears innocuous to the point of nerdishness. Father Arnold Friedman is a devoted and honored schoolteacher, sons David, Seth and Jesse appear as close as brothers can be, and mother Elaine, the odd woman out in a family of high-spirited boys, remains the dutiful suburban homemaker. The night before Thanksgiving in 1987, police with a battering ram break into the Friedman's house with a warrant to search for child pornography. And thus begins the film's main investigation: how a family can disintegrate before your very eyes.
"Capturing The Friedmans" could have found a home on cable television, which loves a salacious, multi-layered true crime story. But first time director Jarecki was handed an unexpected wild card that nudged the film into more challenging and heartbreaking territory. It turned out that eldest son David had hours of his own footage, starting with goofy skits he and his young brothers performed for the camera and evolving into a chronicle of the family crisis itself. By the time their world officially falls apart, the Friedmans were so used to David's video inquisitions that the most private and painful moments a family could imagine were laid bare for the unblinking camera. Suddenly Jarecki wasn't left with only hindsight and hazy recollection to work with.
But does brutal honesty necessarily equate The Truth? As much as the film is about the Friedmans, it is also a search for guilt and innocence. And this is where director Jarecki and editor Richard Hankin have a little fun, if you can use such a word with this movie. They have stacked the bottom of the deck with key revelations. And just when you think you're getting a handle on the truth, they flip another card that appears to trump everything before it. When all the cards are on the table, the truth, while more tangible, remains elusive. The only thing "Capturing The Friedmans" can confirm is that guilty or innocent, deluded or honest, everyone came out of this story a victim. This is certainly no failure of Jarecki's, nor does it suggest any agenda or political correctness. The filmmaker does understand the nature of tragedy, and he lets you share in his own surprise as to how it all unfolded.
I could give specific examples. But this is a film worth seeing. And worth seeing with as few preconceptions as possible.
© 2003 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 6/03
Capturing The Friedmans
U.S. - 2003