Beyond the riveting look at a family falling apart under the weight of its own emotional baggage, CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS explores the elusive nature of truth. By the end, far from establishing what is and isn’t true, we are left with the unsettling realization that what is real at any given moment for one person may be patently false to another, and yet neither person is necessarily wrong.
This drama unfolds within another quest for truth and the comparisons are telling. The starting point of both is the carefully constructed façade of happiness and conformity created by the Friedman family, a respected and devoted couple with three sons living a successful upper-middle class life in Great Neck, New York. The façade might have crumbled on its own or not, but any doubt was taken away just before Thanksgiving of 1988 when Arnold was arrested with his youngest son Jesse on charges of child sexual abuse.
Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki cuts present-day interviews with the Friedmans with home movies of them using clips that ranges in time from the Arnold and Elaines honeymoon to the events leading up to the arrest and trials. There is footage, shocking for its vitriol, as parents and children divide into camps, turning on each other with long-simmering resentments that spew with a force that is little mitigated by it being viewed on film instead of in person. The results are poignant and ironic, with each member of the family refracting the crisis from his or her own point of view. Mother Elaine speaks with sadness, but also with almost a sense of wonder that such a thing could have happened to her happy family. Oldest brother David still boils with rage, mostly at his mother. Jesse is bitterly replaying all the steps that led to the mess and its aftermath. Arnolds brother Harold weeps tenderly and longs for solace that he obviously isn’t going to find. Middle brother Seth does not appear, having declined interviews, but allowing his image from the home movies to be included.
Also interviewed are the police detectives who damn the Friedmans with a case that becomes thinner and thinner as photographs contradict recollections, victims disagree about what actually happened, and a crime reporter who specializes in child abuse cases becomes the compelling voice of reason. Jarecki carefully times these revelations throughout the film, using them to punctuate the family’s disintegration and making very clear that they were subjected to a miscarriage of justice fueled by the temper of the times, a naiveté about the legal system, and a police force that was more zealous than efficient, much less impartial. His visuals do much to underscore his point of view, such as establishing shots of Jesse’s lawyers office showing it next door to a tattoo parlor in a strip mall.
As for his editorial take on the Friedmans themselves, he is circumspect with value judgments that are, perhaps, not even for the Friedmans to call. That isn’t to say that he sugar coats the very real failings of this family. There are no saints here, but the sinners are portrayed with a surprising compassion that reveals the pain beneath, pain that doesn’t justify, but does explain much about the Friedmans and, by extension, all of us. CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS is not an easy film, but it is a fascinating one.