True Crime Docs: Truth or Advertising?

(This post is a direct response to the well-reasoned New Yorker piece by Kathryn Schulz.)

With regard to true crime documentaries like Serial, The Jinxand Making a Murderer, I would argue that releasing a documentary without a damning piece of evidence, a smoking gun that provides a critical Hail Mary turnabout in the film’s third act, is both self-serving and unethical. A documentary, especially one devoted to ferreting out the truth in violent, heartbreaking and convoluted criminal matters, should place the revelation of facts above the desire to craft a compellingly one-sided narrative. It is the documentarian’s obsession with self-promotion that results in emotionally exploitative documentaries that lose momentum at the exact moment they should be gaining it.

The Jinx is the obvious example of a true crime documentary that finds its smoking gun. (Spoiler for those uninformed: Robert Durst, the central figure of HBO’s The Jinx series, accidentally leaves his microphone running on a trip to the bathroom post-interview. While muttering to himself, he alludes to committing the crimes. The private confession will result in Durst facing murder charges in the coming year.) Here the unthinkable happens: the hero documentarian, in spite of his growing fondness for Durst, not to mention Durst’s reluctance to continue the interview series, trudges up the snowy mountain of truth and inadvertently discovers its apex, previously eclipsed by fog. Now the documentarian can receive the fruits and wines of his labor, proving once and for all that the man with the moving camera is more reputable than law enforcement could ever be.

If I were to wager a guess, I would say that The Jinx would have turned out the same way as its meandering and inconclusive true crime colleagues, Serial and Making a Murderer, had it not inadvertently stumbled upon its smoking gun. Prior to Durst’s confession, we see the filmmakers, now characters within their own documentary, struggling to schedule interview time with Durst, desperately vying to turn their own mountain of dross into entertainment gold. This suggests that the filmmakers themselves were struggling to find a bookend for their own research, once again proving that the enthusiasm of the armchair detective does not always equal skill or precision. Without Durst’s damning verbal misstep, The Jinx would be no different from Serial, in which the concluding monologue basically boils down to the documentarian admitting that she can’t be certain one way or another in spite of her personal involvement in the case. These ambiguous conclusions might sate the armchair philosophers, those accompanists to the armchair detectives who sermonize that nothing in life is ever so cut and dry, but not I.

In the cases of Serial Season 1 and Making a Murderer, there is a disappointing suggestion that the documentarian’s discussion of the crime was in itself fulfilling. Here the documentarian is a noble explorer, hacking through the jungle overgrowth with a machete, peering into the lives of the poor, uneducated natives who find themselves caught in a culture-clash they cannot possibly comprehend. I tried the best I could, says the documentarian, sipping piña coladas on the flight back home. If only some really smart person could have come along and provided the evidence I’d needed to make a better case. Understanding too well one’s personal limitations and the extent of human failings, the audience forgives the documentarian with a gentle round of applause and a considerate, “Thanks for sharing.”

But doesn’t the documentarian owe the subjects, the interviewees, the participants on either side of the legal debate some recompense for wasting their time? The audience can choose for itself what is worthy of watching, but those poor devils who signed onto the project with hopes of possible exoneration or conclusive damnation will be dragged through the muck and mire again upon the film’s release (assuming it garners any viewership, which these true crime stories tend to do in massive droves).

If the facts presented in the documentary are inconclusive, neither the viewer or the documentarian can logically draw a conclusion. One cannot take the absence of damning or exonerating evidence as a call to action to either free or cage the accused. Serial seems to understand this point, admitting that the lack of evidence in its investigation robs the documentary of a smoking gun. But in Making a Murderer, the sheer length of time spent investigating the subject, pouring through decades of legal material in an attempt to find another clever twist to the case of Steven Avery, a man once exonerated already, suggests that after some point the documentarians felt a personal mandate to prove Avery’s innocence, rather than the broader aim of revealing the truth.

We can forgive the Making a Murderer team one sin: unlike Serial and The Jinx, the documentarians did not include themselves as characters in the documentary. Yet their public insistence that they remained unbiased while presenting such an emotionally manipulative documentary sounds more like a ploy to make themselves sound noble than a claim supported by evidence. Even the Chief Content Officer at Netflix says that the documentarians were biased, but that is with the caveat that all documentaries are biased. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, the makers of Making a Murderer, are therefore no more to blame than the Blackfish filmmakers for drumming up Sea World hatred, or the Waiting for Superman filmmakers for making viewers loathe the hoops that underprivileged families jump through in order to receive proper education. In a fair and balanced way, this rings true. Aren’t all humans biased by their feelings and experiences? Ricciardi and Demos are no more biased or villainous than the average joe. But without a smoking gun – evidence of Sea World abusing its whales, the tears in the eyes of those families screwed by school lotteries again – Making a Murderer fails to prove its point.

There is a distinction here, perhaps merely a psychological one, between accepting ones bias in attempting to prompt a specific outcome, and denying all bias for the sake of appearing altruistic. It is my opinion that Ricciardi and Demos are merely covering their tracks now that public outrage on both sides of the debate has reached a climax. It would only fuel their detractors to admit bias in Avery’s favor, that they were deliberately searching for exonerating evidence, a vast conspiracy against Avery, anything that might have given the man a second chance outside prison walls. The first few episodes of Making a Murderer paint a balanced picture of Avery, reminding us of his previous violent, perverse and deranged behavior, but only as a counterpoint to the fact that he was innocent of his first major conviction. Once proof of Avery’s innocence is harder to come by, Ricciardi and Demos paint a more pro-Avery picture. After all, the prosecution does such a good job of opposing the defense’s conspiratorial claims, why shouldn’t the documentarians stick up for poor Avery?

There are hints, clues, whispers that Avery is innocent, suggestions that evidence was tampered with, planted by the police perhaps to put Avery behind bars at any cost. The exonerating evidence never becomes clearer than that. It’s always veiled in shadows along with the truth. In an effort to spice things up in the final inconclusive episodes of Making a Murderer, the documentarians go out of their way to call out prosecutor Ken Kratz on his less than ethical dealings with another client. Relevant? No, but good television for those who’ve already found a hundred reasons to dislike the man prosecuting poor Stevey.

When a documentary subject fails to deliver a compelling narrative, what is the documentarian to do? If you asked me, I’d say chuck the whole documentary. Chalk it up as a loss, like so many failed television pilots and direct-to-video DVDs. (Then again, Netflix’s back catalogue is all failed sitcoms and direct-to-video schlock, so maybe it would have found its way to streaming audiences even without the Netflix seal of approval.) But no, there’s too much money and pride at stake in entertainment to do anything but release the malformed entity into the environment for public consumption. Maybe someone will enjoy it, the documentarian thinks. And then I’ll get hired to do another movie sometime soon. Wouldn’t that be nice?

So a claim of unbiased, fact-based reporting is a necessity in this modern job climate. How else could the filmmakers ensure that they aren’t blackballed by the entertainment community, as well as society at large? There is also the larger issue of whether or not Ricciardi and Demos omitted key evidence in order to make Avery’s case more compelling. That debate still rages on amongst investigators, armchair detectives, and even the members of the legal teams directly involved in the case. Armchair detective-work stops when actual casework is involved. “I’ll let the smart people handle it,” says the viewer, no doubt waiting for any glimmer of evidence that might confirm his pre-formed beliefs.

So then, is there any real distinction between the documentarian and the viewer? Both are armchair detectives attempting to use their best sleuthing (and lack of practical experience) to conjure up a solution to a mystifying crime scene. And when that solution doesn’t present itself, they conjure up the best emotional plea they can muster, relying on their audience’s feelings to provide the exoneration or damnation they require to sculpt a compelling narrative. If at first you don’t succeed, try really hard at convincing people that you actually did succeed. That way, they won’t know whom to believe.

Hubris is a defining facet for many, especially those who seek careers in entertainment. And since we, those viewers and listeners at home who compulsively binge on true crime programs, are using these documentaries to fantasize about how we would handle things, then can we really claim to be superior? There’s nothing particularly wrong with entertainment, nor its propensity to allow the viewer to escape his woes for a while. And when compared to the pandering fluff of most sitcoms, at least documentaries engage the viewer in critical thinking.

The line between entertainment and documentary blur when the public gets involved. And in the case of Making a Murderer, the public and its outrage have become directly involved. How can I claim the documentary failed when over one hundred thousand viewers are begging President Obama to free Avery? Forget the fact that Obama does not have that legal power, and that someone really should have thought that part through before gathering 130,000 signatures. If the documentary were truly unbiased, as its creators claim, how could it have done such a good job of misleading the masses into thinking that some factual argument for Avery’s innocence had been made, when clearly, the facts in his favor are either ambiguous or largely absent?

Our mistrust in the justice system may be to blame, and as Kathryn Schulz points out in her well-reasoned piece, Making a Murderer fails when it falls short of indicting the maddening aspects of the justice system because of its dependence on proving Avery’s innocence. The public outrage is not a result of people’s die-hard certainty that Avery is innocent, but rather that the justice system is flawed. The public wants Avery freed not because he is a saint, but because it would be penance for all those helpless convicted souls who rot away in jail cells for crimes they did not commit. And who can expect a criminal, surrounded by other criminals, to leave a life of confinement without learning to become a better criminal? Even God can’t save them all.

But speaking of God, that constant reminder of man’s failings, the big man upstairs who serves up reminders of hubris on a daily basis, what would prompt Ricciardi and Demos to stick to their guns, deliver bias, and then claim the opposite? How could they possibly spin themselves differently than they appear in the evidence provided? It’s almost like they had some practice. Perhaps working with Avery’s case all these years gave them some enlightenment. If we can’t save Avery, perhaps we can save ourselves using the legal mumbo-jumbo that resulted in his conviction. It probably wasn’t so cut-and-dry, but you have to wonder why it was so important for them to save face, or release the documentary at all, when there wasn’t much to go on beyond “gut feeling.” If they were so committed to obscuring damning evidence, they could have gone farther in finagling the details to make their documentary’s hero seem convincing.

But maybe true crime documentaries will always have plot-holes, gaping lapses in judgment, neatly filled with heresay and conjecture to angry up the blood. Perhaps The Jinx would have ended the same way if not for that Hail Mary confession. Like other true crime docs, The Jinx suffers from getting its documentarians involved in the narrative by the tail-end. They include themselves as a way of increasing their personal importance with regard to the findings, as well as to increase suspense. By using the documentarian as the viewer’s heroic avatar, they make us wonder, ‘What would I do in a similar situation? Would I have the strength to bear down and search for the truth in spite of the potential danger?’ It’s a way of deifying the documentarian as a brave explorer, rather than allowing them to fulfill their role as an educator. But as soon as the facts stop propelling the documentarian’s argument, their role as truth-finder falters. As they flail, they redefine themselves as the everyman, a hopeless schmo like us, one so tragically human that he couldn’t possibly solve the case without divine intervention. But in cases like Avery’s and many others, a documentarian’s absolution and desire for self-promotion do little to salvage the lives damaged or destroyed by the case, as well as the countless victims and bystanders left in its wake.