HBO's Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart Proves You Don't Always Know What You Think You Know

Aug 14, 2014 at 4:00 am
HBO's Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart Proves You Don't Always Know What You Think You Know

Maybe you think you know what Woody Allen did or didn't do in that summerhouse all those years ago. Maybe you look at his history -- shacking up with a Stuyvesant high school girl in the late '70s; marrying his longtime partner's adopted daughter in the '90s -- and simply know, deep down, that the man who would commit these skeevy but consensual acts with young women must also be capable of committing the vilest of all nonconsensual ones with girls far younger still.

Or maybe you know the opposite: Because he's the smart, funny dude who made Annie Hall he couldn't possibly have done it.

If you're certain of anything but the impossibility of knowing for sure, you really should watch Jeremiah Zagar's Captivated, a fascinating and unsettling doc premiering on HBO August 18. The story's familiar, even if you don't remember the case: In 1990, three teenage boys broke into Smart's home and murdered her husband. The ringleader, 15-year-old William "Billy" Flynn, soon was revealed to be Smart's lover. The boys told the cops that Smart had promised them each $1,000 to kill Gregg Smart -- and that she had vowed to withhold sex from Billy until the husband was dead.

From the start, the case was a sensation. Hawt pix of Smart in lingerie lit up the tabloids and the newish tabloid TV: Geraldo, Inside Edition, A Current Affair, with headlines and segment titles like "Femme Fatale." Even staid People magazine went with "Grieving Spouse or Black Widow?" The presumption in the media was simple and familiar: If she committed the one crime -- sleeping with the teenager -- then this monster almost certainly committed the other. The filmmakers behind Captivated never make a case for Smart's innocence, arguing instead that the trial that convicted Smart was poisoned by the media world in which it festered: Each night, after hearing testimony, the un-sequestered, local jury was free to steep in the coverage of a press convinced that she did it -- and committed to reporting the story only in terms of film noir cliché.

You might remember the national media's take: A TV movie for CBS, a novel from Joyce Maynard, and Gus Van Sant's terrific To Die For, based on Maynard's novel and starring Nicole Kidman. Maynard, interviewed here, keeps getting tripped up -- is she talking about her character, the fame-hungry killer, or the real Pamela Smart, in prison for life without parole? The division between Smart the person and Smart the character was always tricky for the press. New Hampshire TV reporter Bill Spencer recalls his early certainty that Smart was cold and calculating: During an interview in her home, before she had been charged, he felt she was sharply dressed and too well made-up. He laughs today at Smart's suggestion that his crew get a shot of her holding a frozen chunk of the Smarts' wedding-cake -- proof, as he puts it, that she was trying to "produce" the segment.

Whatever power such observations might have had is undercut by displays of similar media savviness on the part of Spencer and the cops who arrested Smart: In recent interviews, Spencer brags that he has talked about Smart on seven previous TV shows. The arresting officer, meanwhile, actually asks the Captivated filmmakers to let him do a more emotional second take of the line he says he dished to Smart when he hauled her in: "The good news is we solved the murder of your husband. The bad news is you're under arrest." Everyone's a noir hero!

Throughout Captivated we see everyday folks falling in love with the media notoriety the case afforded them. WMUR's Spencer whipped up a movie-length special covering the trial of a woman he believed was guilty. The judge and a key prosecution witness seem to have let the excitement of the limelight affect their judgment. A juror recorded her thoughts each night on cassette, knowing some day the world would want to hear them -- since she turns out to be one of the few people worried Smart might have been railroaded, hearing her words now comes as a relief.

Zagar packs into the film some rudimentary media-studies discussion: Experts describe the way our love of a good narrative can inspire us to overlook truths that run contrary to whatever story we've chosen to believe. There's a thumbnail sketch of the non-physicist's interpretation of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, but the gulf between what everyone thinks happened and what really may have is best illustrated in incidental moments: the expert confessing he rereads a true-crime book on the case every couple years to refresh his memory; the eyewitness who seems to remember the TV movie rather than the actual crime.

The treatment's not deep, but I hope viewers unfamiliar with these ideas take to them. There is one truth the filmmakers press with urgency and power: the idea that Smart (who seems bright and charming in interview segments) deserved a better trial than she got -- the idea that any and all of us would, if charged with the unthinkable, even if maybe we did do it.