Capturing the Friedmans movie poster
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Capturing the Friedmans movie poster

Capturing the Friedmans Movie Review

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Documentaries come in all sizes and flavors, but few tell as sad of a story - or, for that matter, raise as many questions - as that of the Friedmans. There is no surprise that Capturing the Friedmans was nominated for an Oscar.

In the mid 1980's, the Friedmans seemed like the normal upper-middleclass family. The father, Arnold, was an award-winning computer teacher, and his wife Elaine ran a toddler childcare group. They had three sons, David, Jesse and Seth, and lived in a nice home in Great Neck, NY. However, in late 1987, all of that came crumbling down when Arnold and 18-year old Jesse Friedman were charged with sodomizing many of the young boys in Arnold's computer class. In a heartbeat, the family began to crumble as the testimonies of the children mounted, depicting horrible events that were done upon them. Still, to this day, many members of the family insist that the charges were false.

Capturing the Friedmans, directed by Andrew Jarecki, tells a disturbing story that is almost hard to believe, that a seemingly normal father and son committed too many crimes to count. These kind of crimes are some of the worst, and to even imagine anything close to what happened is difficult. At the same time, it is hard to figure how, no matter how loyal they are to their family members, some of the Friedmans refuse to admit that neither Arnold nor Jesse is guilty. That being said, Jarecki has done an impressive job of stepping back and taking a fairly neutral position on the whole matter. On the one hand, the movie explores the point that with so many children coming forward describing so many absolutely hideous things, it is impossible to deny that Arnold and Jesse are guilty. On the other, he looks deeper into the Friedmans and allows them to explain what they want to say, that they believe there was a reasonable doubt.

Shortly before this year's Oscars, families of the victims started a campaign for voters to disregard the nomination of the movie, arguing that it is biased toward the side of the family. In reality, both Arnold and Jesse Friedman were convicted and sent to prison; this movie just looks more into the family, showing that these people are, in fact, human. Perhaps the victims' families were upset because Capturing the Friedman does not issue a verdict itself, and does raise several questions posed by the family. Regardless, the issues brought up are quite interesting.

Jarecki combines interviews with the family with an amazing amount of home footage shot by David Friedman, one of the sons. The home footage shows Arnold and Jesse as fairly normal people, but also depicts the destruction of the family in between the time the incidents came to light and the court trials. Much of the movie seems intrigued - for good reason - with the absolute denial of the charges by the family, despite what seems like such overwhelming evidence - the testimonies of so many children. The family does raise some good questions, as to how these things could have gone on for so long without anyone finding out (everything first came to light when the Post Office began to investigate a "simple" case of Arnold Friedman attempting to purchase child pornography). How could the parents not have noticed something wrong with their children if their teacher was raping them in a short amount of time? How come one of the students reenrolled for the advanced class, even though he claimed he was abused 31 times in the original class? In this documentary, some of the victims seemed to be indicating that they testified against the men just to get people off of their backs.

The questions raised are perhaps not convincing enough to change one's view of the two who committed of the crimes, but are stimulating nonetheless. The complete denial of Jesse Friedman, even after 13 years in prison, is hard not to believe. Then again, it is hard not to believe the many students that described things that most children - or adults, for that matter - would have difficulty even making up. Regardless, Capturing the Friedmans is an excellent documentary that shows just how unclear the truth can be.

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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