Overview: The HBO press release states – When the curtain rose on the murder trial of Pamela Smart murder case 23 years ago, the stage was set for the birth of reality TV. Accused of plotting the 1990 murder of her husband Gregory, the 22-year-old Smart was subsequently convicted in the first fully televised, gavel-to-gavel court case, which has inspired TV shows, books, plays and feature films.
An official selection of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, this documentary explores how the media coverage of the case may have influenced the trial and sentencing. It features an exclusive new interview with Smart herself, as well as interviews with prosecuting and defending attorneys, journalists who covered the case, childhood friends, former inmates who served time with her, and, in the first interview since his release, one of the boys convicted with her.
Pamela Smart worked in the media center of a New Hampshire high school, where she became romantically involved with student Billy Flynn. On May 1, 1990, Flynn and three teenage friends – Patrick Randall, J.R. (Vance) Lattime and Raymond Fowler – went to the couple’s condo and murdered Smart’s husband. The four young men later reached a plea agreement with the state for a lower sentence in exchange for their testimony against Smart.
In New Hampshire, the trial had higher ratings than afternoon soap operas. Local journalist Erin Joyce calls the case “a tale for the ages,” explaining how it is, “the classic tale of the seductress who seduces these innocent young boys.” In a clip from a 1990 installment of “Geraldo,” the talk-show host asks, “Isn’t this trial by television?” New York Law School’s Richard Sherwin, an expert on visual perception in litigation, explains that the archetypal tale of the downfall of a beautiful woman created a “very powerful” storyline that enthralled the public.
CAPTIVATED explores how the media may have influenced both the public and the jurors, who were not sequestered. In addition to a trove of archival footage, it features audiotapes recorded after each day’s proceedings by a juror who expresses concerns about the proceedings. The film also revisits other aspects of the trial, including the media profile of key prosecution witness Cecelia Pierce, who had been Smart’s intern. Wired and coached to compel Smart to talk about the murder, Pierce recorded controversial audiotapes that the prosecution used to help convict Smart.
Journalist Joyce Maynard’s book “To Die For” was inspired by the case and adapted for the feature film of the same name starring Nicole Kidman. Joyce Chopra, who directed a TV movie starring Helen Hunt as Smart, recalls how the story was such an “easy sell for television.”
After a 14-day trial, Smart was convicted and is now serving life without parole in the Bedford Correctional Facility in New York for being an accomplice to first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and witness tampering. Each of the young men involved in the case received lesser sentences. Lattime and Fowler have been released and Flynn and Randall are up for parole in 2015.
Expectations: I don’t often use the entire press release HBO offers us to use, but with this documentary I decided to use it in its entirety. Why? Well, I think it is a bit important that those not familiar with the crime and trial in question might want the information before seeing the documentary and for the rest of us to use it as a refresher. The reason I think you need the information is because I am not sure that this film is actually about all the specifics of the crime as much as it is about the trial and the precedent the trial set regarding the evolution of the media since.
There is some information above that I did hesitate in using just because it would have been a nice reveal for viewers to see that Pamela Smart and one of the teen boys are actually interviewed. I decided to leave that information stand however because I am so eager to state that my biggest interest lies in what they have to say. Whether or not they talk about the crime or this trial’s impact on the media and history doesn’t matter. I think it should prove interesting no matter what they talk about. I am looking forward to it. One more resource to assist us in preparation is the trailer.
Gut Reaction: Wow, they certainly needed every last minute of that documentary to get that whole story in. It was a bit stylistic as they found creative ways to show the footage of the case. I suppose it could have been a bit dry and boring though, without the clever gimmick in place. It also would have dragged the piece down if they had little actual footage to go on and showed the same small clips over and over. This documentary had plenty of footage and even audio material to share. Of course, that was one of the driving points of the work, the fact that it was the first gavel-to-gavel coverage of a sensational trial. TV has certainly has never been the same since. Court TV (TruTv), for example, was created shortly after the Pamela Smart attention. They have been “black widow” and “ice princesses” before, but Pamela Smart clearly got the attention and it looked like she wanted it. I found the historical significance quite an interesting footnote.
Equally intriguing is the examination of how the media coverage, including TV and theatrical movies, influenced and/or manipulated both jurors and society alike. Was she the evil person the country appeared to have declared her, even before the trial even begun? The whole examination was quite good, especially the audiotapes of Juror #13. They proved quite insightful. The presence of Smart herself in the film didn’t hold the impact, for me, that I thought it should but it was quite a bonus to have her on camera. As a whole this 99-minute documentary builds a great debate about our justice system and the media’s presence there. I’m not going to debate all the issues here; we can take them up in the comments if you wish.
In Conclusion: Regardless of whether you know the case or not this documentary is one to leave you thinking about not just the crime and trial but, all the points I mentioned above. There was clearly media manipulation there and if that insane circus hadn’t been there by Juror #13’s declaration things would have gone differently. CAPTIVATED: THE PAMELA SMART TRIAL will prove a fascinating watch and so would a repeat viewing of Nicole Kidman’s To Die For or Helen Hunt’s Murder In New Hampshire: The Pamela Wojas Smart Story.
Other HBO air dates: 08.24 at 2:45pm, 08.25 at 8:00am, 08.26 at 4:30pm, 09.03 at 12:35am, 09.06 at 10:30am and 09.09 4:15pm. HBO2 air dates: 08.23 at 9:35am, 08.27 at 3:00pm & 11:50pm, 09.01 at 1:15pm and 09.04 at 7:15pm. Here is one more look.
Next Week: On 08.25. there is an encore presentation of THE LAST TRUCK: CLOSING OF A GM PLANT. As this one does not have a review onsite HBOWatch will review it.