Film Review: ‘Amanda Knox’

Netflix - Amanda Knox
Courtesy of Netflix

A documentary about the notorious murder case reveals the guilty party. It wasn't Amanda Knox — it was tabloid journalism.

Fleet Street is the historical home of the British newspaper industry, but the term came to symbolize something more specifically scandalous. Starting around 1969, when Rupert Murdoch expanded his empire there, “Fleet Street” began to mean tawdry British tabloid journalism, the kind that was so salacious and over-the-top that no other school of downmarket publishing could touch it. The first time I went to London, in 1995, I remember looking at the tabloids, with their flashes of naughty nudity and lip-smacking mercilessness, and thinking that not even the National Enquirer could hold a candle to them; they seemed their own uniquely ratcheted-up form of cheap voyeurism. But one of the messages of “Amanda Knox,” a gripping and incisive documentary about the 20-year-old student from Seattle who, in 2007, was tried and convicted in Italy for murdering one of her roommates, is that it crystalizes the moment when Fleet Street began to infect the rest of the world like a virus. To say that we never recovered would be an understatement.

The Amanda Knox story, when it happened nine years ago, came packaged with so much shrill hyperbole that if you read the reports and tried to figure out for yourself what happened, it was almost impossible not to get lost in a maze of outrageousness, all leading to the implication that she was guilty. The girl with the suspicious eyes! Who slept with so many men! And together with her Italian boyfriend (who was also tried and convicted), along with a third accomplice, killed the roommate in the frenzied climax of an orgy! It was all delivered like some latter-day Manson episode, to the point that Amanda’s “guilt” became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if she didn’t kill the roommate, readers and viewers around the world drank in her fallen-angel image in newspapers, on TV, and on the web and thought, “Just look at that face! She has to be guilty of something.”

“Amanda Knox,” directed by Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn, revisits the saga by burning off the lurid overkill and, for the first time, getting the facts right. The film has been made in a scrupulous version of what might be called the HBO nonfiction aesthetic — the mixture of intelligence, hooky subject matter, and uncensored honesty that Sheila Nevins, the President of HBO Documentary Films, has patented into a kind of house style. Except that “Amanda Knox” isn’t an HBO film. It’s a Netflix Original Documentary, proof that compelling modes of filmmaking will always spread.

Blackhurst and McGinn take us back to the crime scene, using police video footage shot on Nov. 2, 2007 — the day the body of Meredith Kercher, a 20-year-old student from South London, was discovered in her room with her throat slit. The room was in a four-bedroom ground-floor apartment in the picturesque hillside town of Perugia. At the time, one of the early reported signs of Amanda’s “guilt” was that she appeared remorseless, as indicated by assorted examples of her “inappropriate” behavior. In “Amanda Knox,” the police video captures one of those early moments — an extended shot of Amanda, standing outside the house, kissing Raffaele Sollecito. What we see, in fact, doesn’t look inappropriate at all; it looks like a visibly distraught college girl taking comfort in the arms of her boyfriend. But this was the seed of the myth that took hold virtually overnight: Amanda the witchy libertine vixen — the crazy American who brought her sexy evil to the Old World.

How did this myth gain a foothold? Through the British tabloid media. The filmmakers interview Nick Pisa, the freelance Fleet Street journalist who became notorious for publishing Knox’s prison diary, and he talks, with a brutal flippancy that’s shocking in context, about the methodology of he and his fellow reporters. They were all trying to whip each other with scoops, the more outlandish the better, and because Knox was alluring and promiscuous, the whole notion that she was also a sick temptress guilty of murder became great copy.

A journalist like Pisa “reported” the story with leering insinuation and, at times, by making up the facts. “Meredith Killed in Sex Orgy” was an early headline, not because there was evidence for it, but because it sounded good. Knox became known in the tabloids as “Foxy Knoxy,” with can’t-miss stories like “Dead Girl Feared Knoxy’s Sex Toy.” For a while, it was reported that she was HIV-positive (not so). Then an image popped up on the Internet of Amanda, when she was a teenager, clowning around and pretending to fire a machine gun — clear evidence, of course, that she was a deranged killer. The tabs beamed that image around the world. There’s a word to describe the stories that were printed about Amanda Knox — and no, the word isn’t “sensational” or “exploitative” (though those would apply). The word is unreal.

And that’s the key to what makes “Amanda Knox” such a resonant documentary, with a reach far beyond this case. The film captures how the unreality of tabloid journalism has slid through digital portals into the mainstream, becoming part of the toxic air of misinformation that we all now breathe. The movie includes clips of Diane Sawyer hurling questions about the Knox case in a puritanical, hanging-judge tone, but seen now, it’s more clear than it was then — when the facts were all so murky — that Sawyer is just mimicking the scoldingly salacious tone of the tabloids. In doing so, she (and others) legitimized the cynical deceptions of a sliming hack like Nick Pisa.

“Amanda Knox” presents interviews with nearly all of the principal parties, including Amanda, who at 29 is a gravely poised and compelling spokeswoman for herself. She’s very sanguine and articulate in her understanding of how the image of who she was could ever have become so distorted. In the interviews with Nick Pisa and the lead prosecutor in the case, Guiliano Mignini, it’s clear that both men opened up because they thought they were being recorded sympathetically (actually, the sharkish Pisa just comes off as addicted to being on camera), but what the filmmakers do is let these two hang themselves with their own words. Mignini is a real piece of work. He compares himself to Sherlock Holmes, but what that comes down to is that he built his entire “case” on hunches. “Immediately, I could tell it was a staged break-in,” he says. Really? How? And he’s so openly accusatory of Amanda for what he regards as her lack of sexual morals that the case becomes an unhinged Italian Catholic psychodrama, with Amanda as the girl who must be guilty because she’s guilty of “sin.”

Was there ever physical evidence? There were wisps of DNA, which independent forensic investigators, near the end of the four years that Knox spent in prison, determined to be probably random and entirely inconclusive. But there was hard DNA evidence — and circumstantial evidence, too — that incriminated Rudy Guede, the local convicted burglar who, along with Knox and Sollecito, was found guilty of killing Meredith Kercher. (All indications are that he committed the crime alone.) The direct evidence used to convict Knox and her boyfriend wasn’t just flimsy — it was all but nonexistent. Yet “Amanda Knox” presents a definitive dissection of how they were really convicted by a festering court of global tabloid-media mythology. Amanda Knox may have been railroaded, but it’s reality that was damned.

Film Review: 'Amanda Knox'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, September 9, 2016. MPAA Rating: Not rated. Running time: 92 MIN.

Production

A Netflix release of a Plus Pictures ApS production. Producers: Mette Heide, Stephen Morse.

Crew

Directors: Rod Blackhurst, Brian McGinn. Screenplay: McGinn, Matthew Hamachek. Camera: Blackhurts. Editor: Hamachek.

With

Amanda Knox, Raffaele Sollecito, Nick Pisa, Guiliana Mignini.

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  1. Francesca says:

    So basically this documentary shows how bad the investigation system and the justice work in my country! Great!

  2. I would think it wise for not to go on an Italian vacation . . . . ever. Or, even to any countries that have treaties with Italy. If the Italian courts ever got their hands on her again, they make up charge after charge and keep her there for years dealing with it all, even if she ended up exonerated again.

  3. David K. GREENWALD says:

    Having lived in Italy for many years, the media focus is salacious. All that’s needed is a pretty face.

    These stories, like national soap operas, play out for years to public consumption. They recognize them, like old friends, on a first name basis. Sarah, the pretty, blonde fifteen year old, was strangled by her jealous cousin, Sabrina, or killed by Sabrina’s father who was molesting her, depending on whose story you believe. Yara, the cute thirteen year old, was murdered on her way home from gym class, with the search for her killer revealing multiple illicit affairs in a small town.

    Bear in mind that investigative police work is often shoddy. Investigative journalism is non-existent. A neat package takes precedence over facts. Sex sells. Women play the role of victim, as attested by the annual “femicidio” statistics, the killing of inconvenient wives or girlfriends. Male sons sit on a pedestal.

    Against this backdrop, the prosecutor served up his hypothetical case in the Knox trial. He focused on Knox, rather than on the two males in the case. She was the femme fatale involved in a sex game gone bad. The Italian media then ran with the “Foxy Knoxy” story. After all, here was a pretty, libertine American “temptress” (sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll) that every Italian mother fears would lead her “virtuous” son astray. Nothing would convince my neighbor, born in Perugia, otherwise.

  4. Larry Saltzman says:

    A superb review of a documentary that shows how innocent people like Amanda Knox can be vilified by a ruthless press out for profits.

  5. THIS is the one horrible lesson I learned about the media, Amanda was brutalized by a bunch of perverts and no one IN AUTHORITY helped her for more than two years. It took her own family and a bunch of strangers to MAKE the media listen that she and Raffaele were not killers and that the DELIBERATE efforts of the British and Italian media covered up who,in fact, was the real killer. It was one of the most heart-rending and disgusting things I have ever witnessed.

    Amanda is a member of my community, she is a true sweetheart, her family is sweethearts and none of them deserved what Fleet Street did to them. I want readers to stop for just a moment and think — what would you do if the tabloids of Britain and Italy came after you, invaded your neighborhood, followed your family and made up lies about you while you were in prison with a gag order slapped on you?

    How would you handle that? Who would you ask for help? How could you make them stop? What I learned was the no one makes the tabloids stop and no government officials will help you other than doing just barely what they are paid to do. I learned that ordinary people like myself and others have a lot more power than we realize. Our voices made a difference, but it took years to get organized enough for that to happen.

    Thanks for this great review Owen, you hit the nail on the head.

  6. Thor Klamet says:

    I never knew that MIgnini said he could see the break-in was staged just by looking at the window. I know one of the police officers said they use “the psychological method” and so they don’t need actual evidence but I hadn’t heard the Mignini-as-Columbo thing before. Talk about hanging yourself with your own words.

    The stupidity of the police in the case is epic. I wrote all about it in hardthinking.com (The Marching Morons is my favorite, but there are several posts).

    I’ve always wondered if Mignini actually believed that the woman with the hat and the false nose really was a witch. It seems impossible that he could have believed Knox guilty once Guede was found and Lumumba provided a minute-by-minute account of his activities that night. He must have known at that point, that he had made a mistake. But maybe not. Maybe he was able to fool even himself. Who knows?

    • pataz1 says:

      Glass was found on the window that Guede supposedly climbed over
      No glass was found outside
      Glass was found on top of the clothes that were supposedly tossed around the room after the break-in
      Sollecito said on the phone nothing was taken. Odd, since there was still a locked door.

  7. Natalie says:

    The documentary may be excellent but the slobbering over it by the writer of the article makes the review less effective.

  8. Stopper 10 says:

    I’m from the UK and I could see from the outset that she/they were being set up. It’s clear to anyone looking at the facts of this case. There are obsessives and tabloid sheep who still accuse – but at the end of the day innocence is the only outcome. The murderer is so obvious it’s embarrassing and painful to comprehend how anyone could think otherwise

  9. Beth says:

    The SC which set her free determined the break in was staged. Knowing what a staged burglary looks like falls under police work. The SC also maintained Rudy Guede acted with others. Does the film reveal all the latest court findings?

    • IMO, the SC that set her free felt bound by the factual findings by prior SC rulings regarding staged break-in and multiple defendants. That’s known as “judicial truth,” an unfortunate requirement of Italian jurisprudence. It’s clear that the final SC ruling found the police work in this case shoddy in the extreme.

    • Tom says:

      What does it matter if the break in was staged or not? It was never investigated. The break in fits Guede’s modus operandi in every way. Previous places that he had burglarized were entered the same way.He also threatened the inhabitants with a knife.

  10. jhs39 says:

    It will be interesting to see how this documentary plays in the UK because my understanding is that most people there still think Amanda Knox is guilty.

    • Beth says:

      He was never charged with any burglary . He also never threatened anyone with a knife. The importance of being factual and not getting carried away with false reports applies to Rudy Guede as well.

      • BEth says:

        Thor , The defense found Tramontano who witnessed a black man enter his apartment. No cop or judge agreed that black man was a positive ID for Guede. Please read Judge Micheli’s final report.

      • Thor Klamet says:

        We should be factual. Guede was NOT charged with burglary. You are correct. After the Milan police found him in the midst of burglarizing a building and arrested him and confiscated items found on his person that were linked with two previous burglaries they RELEASED him. Five days later, Meredith was dead.

        You are right about the knife too. Christian Tramontano reported to the court that he surprised Guede at night in his (Christian’s) house. Tramontano reported that Guede had a knife. Technically Guede issued no threats. He didn’t say I’m going to hurt you or anything like that. He was just in Christian’s house (accroding to Christian) late at night with knife. But that’s not a threat. Let’s not get carried away.

        Besided, Christian was probably in love with Amanda anyway, just like everyone else so let’s not necessarily believe him.

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