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.