Sundance Film Review: ‘Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart’

Jeremiah Zagar's documentary strenuously argues that excessive media frenzy prejudiced the outcome of the Pamela Smart trial.

Captivated The Trials of Pamela Smart

“Captivated” revisits the case of Pamela Smart, a young New Hampshire woman currently serving a life sentence without possibility of parole for conspiring to kill her husband — a sentence considerably harsher than was handed down to those who actually carried out the deed. Jeremiah Zagar’s second feature documentary (following 2008’s “In a Dream,” about his artist father, Isaiah) argues that Smart’s trial, the first ever broadcast in its entirety, was seemingly judged by the media, prejudicing public opinion as well as, possibly, police and court actions. But the pic makes that point so strenuously and repetitiously that it becomes a tad exhausting. Further editing down to the 90-minute mark could help this HBO presentation score additional tube sales.

On May 1, 1990, Greggory Smart was beaten, then shot to death at home, having seemingly interrupted a break-in burglary. But anonymous tips soon led police to the “bad” side of town, and three delinquent male teens — including 16 year-old Billy Flynn, who’d had an affair with 22 year-old Pamela Smart, a staff member at his high school. The scenario that emerged from the boys and other students was immediately taken as truth by local and national media, painting Smart as a cold-blooded narcissist who offered Flynn and his pals $1,000 each to kill her spouse of less than a year.

Smart’s evident thirst for the spotlight and composed, unemotional demeanor made those allegations seem all too credible to the public at large, perhaps to an insufficiently sequestered jury as well. Before the latter’s selection had even begun, area TV station WMUR aired an entire lurid evening program on the matter; soon there would be a TV movie (“Murder in New Hampshire,” with Helen Hunt), Gus Van Sant’s acclaimed “To Die For” (with Nicole Kidman as the sociopathic perp drawn from Joyce Maynard’s roman a clef novel), several books, and exploitative nonstop news coverage.

After providing an overview of the saga, the pic rewinds midway through to painstakingly underline irregularities in the “media-circus” court proceedings, including the fact that the accused boys accepted plea bargains and were jailed together for months, giving them plenty of opportunity to cook up a mutual story placing the blame on Smart. The film implies this was all a major miscarriage of justice at Smart’s expense, and while most viewers will agree that her trial was less than fair, the issue of guilt (which she’s always strongly denied) remains murky. She’s already had one appeal turned down, and at present it seems doubtful she’ll ever be a free citizen again.

Smart is duly interviewed here alongside attorneys, journalists, and others including, finally, one recently freed ex-conspirator. (Far from exonerating her as hoped, however, his terse comments only muddy the waters further.) There’s also, natch, a large amount of archival footage from the live trial airings, TV news, and the two screen dramatizations.

This is all intriguing, and will especially fascinate those who weren’t around and overexposed to the case 20-odd years ago. But Zagar’s thesis that overpowering media exploitation determined its legal outcome early on  is introduced in the very first shot, then hammered home harder the longer the pic goes on. It’s not such a complicated or surprising message that “Captivated” couldn’t have delivered it more succinctly.

Packing is pro, including brief re-enactment inserts. In visual impact, the docu will lose nothing in heading straight to the smallscreen.

Sundance Film Review: ‘Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart’

<p>Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 17, 2014. Running time: <strong>102 MIN.</strong></p>

  • Production: <p>(Documentary) An HBO Documentary Films presentation of a Hard Working Movies production in association with Passion Pictures, Sky Atlantic and Public Record. Produced by Lori Cheatle. Executive producers, Lisa Heller, Sheila Nevins, John Battsek, Nicole Stott, Andrew Ruhemann, Celia Taylor, Siobhan Mulholland. Co-producer, Gabriel Sedgwick.</p>
  • Crew: <p>Directed by Jeremiah Zagar. Camera (color, HD), Naiti Gamez; editor, Keiko Deguchi; music, Zoe Keating; music supervisor, Kyle McKeveny; sound, Lu Olkowski, Mike Guarino; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Tom Paul.<strong></strong></p>
  • With: <p>Pamela Smart, Joyce Chopra, Robert Juceam, Paul Maggiotto, Joyce Maynard, Eleanor Pam, Daniel Pelltier, Bill Spencer, Richard Sherwin, Paul Twomey, Mark Sisti.</p>