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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 25, 2003

Anatomy of a trial gives us no answers

By Glenn Lovell
Knight Ridder Newspapers


Rated: No MPAA rating (could be R for adult material)

Director: Andrew Jarecki

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

Every family harbors secrets, most kept squirreled away in the ink-black recesses of their attic. The Friedmans of Great Neck, N.Y., felt compelled to record theirs in home movies. Not just the Kodak moments but also the kitchen squabbles, the cruel recriminations ... the mounting suspicions of unspeakable acts.

Egged on by a shutterbug father, they kept the 8mm and video cameras rolling and extended their 15 minutes to a lifetime of infamy. Such is the price for unbridled narcissism.

Or was it something else? Maybe family ties that bind so tightly they not only blind, they strangle?

Arnold and Elaine Friedman and their three sons are front and center in Andrew Jarecki's riveting new documentary "Capturing the Friedmans," a compilation of `80s TV footage, new family interviews and those once-trivial home movies. Their story opens in Ozzie and Harriet bliss, complete with goofy horseplay, trophies on the mantel, bicycles on the lawn. The mood sours, however when, in 1984, a Nassau County cop posing as a postman appears at the Friedmans' door with a package from the Netherlands.

Arnold Friedman, a retired teacher, is arrested and his house is searched. When local authorities discover that he now teaches a computer class for children in his basement, they assume the worst — and begin interviewing his elementary-age pupils. They unearth exactly what they're searching for: exponentially damning stories of child abuse, not just at the hands of Arnold Friedman but also his youngest son, Jesse, who assisted in the class.

As the local media participate in a feeding frenzy that recalls the McMartin preschool case in Huntington Beach, father and son are charged with numerous counts of sodomizing young boys. Arnold Friedman, who says he's innocent but looks anything but, eventually pleads guilty in the hopes of brokering a deal for Jesse and gets 10 to 30 years. He dies in prison. Ironically, Jesse's case eventually comes down to a question of sexual abuse — at the hands of his father.

Were this all there is to "Capturing the Friedmans," it could be applauded as a creepy, albeit absorbing, real-life crime thriller. First-time director Jarecki, however, has much more in mind.

The story he weaves has as many components — and possible interpretations — as a Hitchcockian mind game. It's about dashed dreams, long-simmering marital discord, overzealous cops and what feels increasingly like a conspiracy to convict, fanned by local hysteria. At least two of the children who testified against the Friedmans now, as grown men, say they either lied or are not so sure, that they were hypnotized into remembering things that didn't take place.

If Jarecki continues making documentaries for the next 40 years, he couldn't hope for a more fascinating cast or skewed family dynamic than that found here. Father Arnold comes off as first camera-happy, then camera-shy, a man who maintains his innocence even as he has trouble looking his wife and sons in the eye.

Eldest son David, who works as a professional clown, is a case study in denial, even blaming his mother for the escalating family crisis. Seth and Jesse, who exhibits very strange behavior the day he is sentenced, are equally convinced that the old man was railroaded. Their every "You're an innocent victim, right?" is as much a plea to him for proof as a pronouncement of family solidarity.

Elaine, who divorced her husband while he was in prison, may be the most complex player. In what she characterizes as "a good marriage," she was cast as a resentful "outsider" who never fully understood why her husband was so distant or her sons so protective of their father. During the unfolding nightmare, she breaks with her sons and withdraws from a man who, she says, was never there to begin with.

In the end we're left with the queasy feeling that justice thwarted was justice served; that the deceptively chummy Arnold may not have been guilty of the Great Neck crimes, but (by his own admission) he was guilty of so much else that one could argue things balanced out in the end and he got his just deserts.

"Capturing the Friedmans" is a movie that will haunt you for months to come. In the tradition of "Brother's Keeper" and other great documentaries, it poses more questions than it answers and leaves us rattled and doubting the very backbone of American society, the family. On the outside the Friedmans appeared sitcom perfect, but, in the words of one investigator, "You could see this wasn't exactly Fred MacMurray and `My Three Sons."'