Post-O.J. Simpson, we know that mass media coverage of a case can seriously affect its outcome. But in 1990, when attractive young Pamela Smart was on trial for persuading three teen boys to shoot her husband, and her case became the first televised trial in history, this was all unmined territory.
Is there such a thing as “innocent before proven guilty” when a scandalous case has been splashed all over tabloids and television screens -- before it even reaches trial? As filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar points out in his incisive documentary “CAPTIVATED: The Trials of Pamela Smart,” which premiered January 17 at Sundance, Smart’s case had a sinfully delicious narrative that an entire nation couldn’t help but be, well, captivated by: The gorgeous woman who seduces innocent younger men into a nefarious plot. As author Joyce Maynard says in the film (Maynard fictionalized Smart’s tale into the novel “To Die For,” which was filmed starring Nicole Kidman), the downfall of the beautiful woman is a story our misogynistic culture finds very potent. Once that story is communicated, via the irresistible medium of television, it’s hard to shake.
Zagar, for his part, seems less interested in the issue of Smart’s guilt or innocence -- though he broaches that, too -- and more in the way the justice system failed this woman, who is currently serving a life sentence without parole. He makes a point of juxtaposing the fantasy version of Smart (including a plethora of images from newspapers and TV spots, all promoting her good-girl-gone-murderous image) with the real Smart, now in her 40s, with whom he gets extensive interviews.
Zagar, an editor by trade, also interweaves artful scenes of televisions blaring, a tape recorder rolling, and a stage with a spotlight to give us the sense that we’re entering into a circus of sorts. Everything, from the nightly newscasts that feverishly covered Smart’s case to Zagar’s own film, is an edited story.
Memory proves to be an edited story, too. This becomes significant as any case wears on, and the vividness of what really happened gets overtaken by forgetfulness and myth-making. In one of the final sequences in “Captivated,” the film’s talking heads are edited together, stumbling over what they’re saying. When did this happen? Who said what? It all happened so long ago. Regardless of Smart’s guilt or innocence, it becomes clear that her ordeal in the justice system was set up for failure. She’s held captive by the story others told about her.
"CAPTIVATED: The Trials of Pamela Smart" will premiere on HBO in 2014.