THE FRIEDMANS is a non-fiction feature film that explores the elusive nature
of truth through the prism of one of the strangest criminal cases in American
The Friedmans seem at
first to be a typical family. Arnold Friedman is an award-winning schoolteacher,
his wife Elaine, a homemaker. Together, they raise their three boys in the
affluent Long Island town of Great Neck. One Thanksgiving, the family is
gathered at home preparing for a quiet holiday dinner. In an instant, a
police battering ram splinters the front door and officers rush into the
house searching every corner, seizing boxes of the family’s possessions.
Arnold and his 18-year old son Jesse are both arrested, led away in handcuffs
through a maze of newsmen, lights, cameras, and trucks assembled in their
As a convoluted investigation
unfolds, father and son are indicted for hundreds of shocking crimes. While
the family vehemently declares its innocence, the Great Neck community is
in an uproar, and the Friedmans are the target of their rage.
The film follows their
story – from the public’s perspective and, most remarkably,
through unique footage of the family in crisis, shot contemporaneously by
family members inside the Friedman house.
As the police pursue the investigation, and the community reacts, the fabric
of the family begins to disintegrate, revealing disturbing questions about
justice, community, family, and – ultimately – truth.
It began as a typical Thanksgiving dinner for the Friedmans in 1987. Father
Arnold, wife Elaine and sons David, Seth and Jesse were spending a quiet
holiday at home like most other families living in the affluent Great Neck
suburb of New York.
Then police broke through their front door with a battering ram. Provoked
by a tip from the post office, authorities combed the house and found stacks
of child pornography behind the piano in Arnold's study. Things only got
worse. Soon, former students of Arnold's began coming forward claiming they
were victims of long-term abuse from both he and Jesse, who helped his father
teach computer classes from their home.
"Capturing the Friedmans" presents this compelling story in great
detail, using existing news footage and contemporary recollections of those
involved. Detectives, judges, journalists, family members and former students
discuss their roles in these late-'80s events. The mountain of conflicting
evidence provides one ambiguous portrait of what actually happened.
Had the documentary been comprised using only these materials it might have
been no different than any other well-made exposé. What elevates
it above comparable efforts into something of an American tragedy is that
the Friedmans' lives from the arrest onward are captured on home videotape.Oldest
brother David had just received a hand-held video camera, and he meticulously
records the events as they transpire. Family dinners turn into volatile
arguments about lies and culpability. Tensions mount between the boys --
who rally around their taciturn father -- and their mom, who grows increasingly
colder to husband and family.
Astonishing scenes include the brothers' last moments together on the steps
of the courthouse as they await the news of Jesse's sentencing. Prosecutors
viewed their zany behavior as proof of their callous disregard for the alleged
crimes. But the footage implies that it's just three guys trying to do ANYTHING
that might take their minds off the world crashing down around them.
"Capturing the Friedmans" is the type of film that begs to be
discussed once the house lights come up. Even the title suggests a dual
meaning -- both in terms of a photographed subject and an escaped criminal.
One of the refreshing things about first-time director Andrew Jarecki's
documentary is that it doesn't hammer home its own point of view. Those
watching can't help but waver from scene to scene as to the guilt or innocence
of the family. The reason it is so hard to make any sense of the outcome
is because so many inconsistencies plague the case.
Had the family always known of Arnold's pedophilic tendency and simply chose
to ignore it?
Was Jesse himself a victim of abuse?
Why was there no physical evidence to support the claims of molestation?
Did investigators coax and coerce false confessions from eyewitnesses?
Or did police try to frame a guilty man?
Even if Arnold and Jesse did commit the acts of which they were accused,
the eerie intimacy with which the viewer witnesses their mounting disintegration
makes it painful to endure. As one of the detectives on the case emphasizes
during an interview, "Just charging somebody with this kind of crime
is enough to ruin their lives."
There's no doubt that the specter of molestation will continue to haunt
the surviving family members forever. The pivotal question remains, however,
if any of the Friedmans brought this fate upon themselves.
This disc does not contain any special features.
Being mostly shot home video style, we can’t really comment on the
visual and sound quality. Considering it’s on home-video and Super-8,
it looks remarkably clear and free from damage, since practically none of
it has been seen since the day it was recorded.
Review by Lokman B S