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HBO presents
Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

"I had a good family, right? Where did this come from?"
- Elaine Friedman

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: February 01, 2004

Director: Andrew Jarecki

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:47m:49s
Release Date: January 27, 2004
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ AA-B+ A

DVD Review

Tolstoy was right, even about those on the north shore of Long Island: every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and the unhappiness of the Friedmans, of Piccadilly Road, is even more singular than most. This extraordinary documentary is the story of, among other things, the unraveling of this family, in the face of the most horrible charges imaginable. But the amazing thing about Andrew Jarecki's movie is that it's not an either/or proposition—that is, you don't have to decide if the Friedmans are entirely monsters, or nothing but victims. It's also a tacit meditation on the elusiveness of truth; at its best—and it's frequently at its best—this is Rashomon for the bridge-and-tunnel crowd.

On the surface, everything seems just fine: Arnold Friedman is a beloved high school teacher; he and his wife, Elaine, have a lovely home in a prosperous community; and they've got three sons, David, Seth, and Jesse, who are as close as brothers can be. (Full confession: the Friedmans lived in Great Neck, New York, my home town; and my sister and Jesse Friedman were in the same high school class. The trappings of the movie, then, have a particular resonance and familiarity for me, but I myself don't know anyone involved in the case. Also, if you want to learn still more about my home town, check out Jay Cantor's doorstop-sized recent novel, Great Neck.) And then, the day before Thanksgiving, in 1988, it literally all came crashing down. The Nassau County police busted through the front door, arresting Arnold on child pornography—they've got him dead to rights on this, with magazines with names like Jail Bait and Chicken Pickin's hidden behind the piano in his home office. Things go from the nightmarish to the apocalyptic: Arnold taught computer classes to Great Neck kids in his home, and now Arnold and Jesse (who helped his father with the classes) are brought up on charges of serially molesting the boys in these classes. True or not, what does one do in the face of such accusations?

Amazingly enough, the answer for the Friedmans was: press the RECORD button. As a clan they had always been early adopters, going back to the days of Arnold's father, and 8mm home movie cameras—now that his father and little brother have been arrested, David runs out and buys one of the first video cameras on the market, and starts shooting the family. And so the assemblage of footage here is remarkable—we see contemporary news coverage (this was a huge, huge story in the area at the time), home videos of the Friedmans sorting through the shards of what remains of their lives, and newly recorded interviews, not only with the family members, but with some of the alleged victims and their parents, with police investigators and the judge who presided over the case, and with a slew of the Friedmans' lawyers. Did Arnold and Jesse molest all these boys? There's no physical evidence to suggest that they did, and there's certainly the implication that these charges were trumped up in a sort of hysteria reminiscent of the McMartin case. On the other hand, at the very best, you could say that Arnold Friedman was a deeply troubled man. He confesses to having molested other young boys (not those in his class); he claims to have sexually abused his own little brother (interviewed in adulthood, Arnold's brother Howard has no recollection of this); he admits to fears about his own nature, and the fact that he's the father of three sons has the possibility of providing the sickest sort of temptation for him.

You realize, after a while, that we may not come to know the truth of the case, but that in less than two hours we learn more about the Friedmans, their fragilities, and psychological makeup, than anyone outside of our own immediate families. We learn about the shortcomings in Arnold's and Elaine's sex life; about the trauma of Arnold's sister dying in childhood; about Elaine feeling ganged up on by the four men in her house. And as the picture runs on, your reactions to them become more complex and nuanced—is Elaine a shrew of a woman, unhappy in her marriage, hanging her husband out to dry? Or is she a fiercely protective mother, unswervingly loyal to her boys, looking to do whatever it is she perceives to be in their best interests, even if she's wrong? It's also a movie about the power of suggestion, and of memory—one investigating officer describes Friedman's computer class as a "free-for-all," while one of the students recalls it "as boring as you could imagine." Somebody's lying, or having their memory play tricks on them; we don't know who, and neither do they.

You may feel unclean for all kinds of reasons watching this movie—we become voyeurs, watching the Friedmans' home movies, for instance; and the terrifying police procedures in the case may bring to mind witch trials. In an unbelievable bit of irony that wouldn't be believed in a fiction film, the Friedmans' trial was the first in Nassau County in which cameras were allowed in the courtroom, so there's still more footage. Information isn't the same thing as knowledge, though, and the tale of the Friedmans takes on an almost epic quality, the stuff of Greek tragedy: literally, the sins of the father are visited on the sons. There's an obvious duality to the title of the film, referring both to the family's insatiable desire to fix themselves on film, video or audiotape, and to the efforts of law enforcement to bring to justice those charged with probably the most horrible crime you can think of. And yet, the most powerful elements of the movie don't have to do with any sort of videomania, or zealous law enforcement—it's a movie about the decay of a family, its rotting from within, its being undone by the same forces that yoke it together. It's a heartbreaking movie, really, and an extraordinarily accomplished piece of documentary storytelling.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The colors and images are rich and clear; this is a strong, handsome transfer, and the film looks especially fine considering the limited budget on which it was made, and the variety of film stocks and source materials that were used.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The score is occasionally jacked up a little too loudly, and so the balance sometimes is askew; but everything is comprehensible, more or less. (When it isn't, as on some of the home movies, the filmmakers wisely provide us with subtitles.)

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 10 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Deleted Scenes
3 Documentaries
16 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Andrew Jarecki and Richard Hankin
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Gladiator style 2-pack
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. audio scrapbook
  2. video FAQ
  3. accompanying booklet with review of the film by David Denby, originally published in The New Yorker
  4. DVD credits
Extras Review: As you might anticipate, given the subject matter and the predilection of the Friedmans, there are many, many extras here, many of them having to do especially with the legal aspects of the case. (In fact, The New York Times reports that, in an effort to get Jesse's guilty plea dismissed, his attorneys have entered into evidence a copy of this DVD set.) Disc One offers an original trailer, subtitles, and a thoughtful commentary track from director Andrew Jarecki and Richard Hankin, the film's editor and co-producer. They both talk about their intimacy with the Friedmans—they worked on the film for three years, and even given the charges levied against Arnold and Jesse, it's hard not to develop a fondness for those you come to know so well. The genesis of the film was mighty roundabout—Jarecki started making a film about New York City party clowns, the most celebrated of whom is David Friedman. David alluded to treasures of family videos, once Jarecki was on the story, and the two of them worked out an apt swap: as a child, David was on Candid Camera, and agreed to give Jarecki access to all the Friedmania if Jarecki could come up with the Candid Camera clip. Jarecki and Hankin also discuss Elaine as the polarizing figure, for audiences, and their having witnessed not a few fights about her, between couples, coming out of screenings. (Invariably, they say, men derided her as nasty and controlling; women defended her as empathetic and protective.)

Disc Two is jammed with all kinds of information, as well, and almost everything here is hypnotic. First, under a section titled The Discussion, are three fascinating bits—the first (09m:22s) is highlights of a post-screening discussion at the Tribeca Film Festival, and the participants include Jesse, David, and Elaine; the filmmakers; and many others who appear in the film, including the arresting and investigating officers, and a journalist who took up Arnold's cause, defending him against the sort of group hysteria that was happening in a number of places at the time. Things get still closer to home, with another discussion (06m:15s) at the Great Neck premiere of the film—on hand most prominently here is Abbey Boklan, the judge who presided over the case, who is hectored by an unidentified Friedman defender. Also included is an appearance (19m:17s) by Jarecki on Charlie Rose, in which Rose unhelpfully compares the Friedmans to the Osbournes, and Jarecki talks about the guilty pleas of Arnold and Jesse; he says that "the film serves as the trial that never was."

Also under this section: a video FAQ file, culled together from a variety of events, about the family and the circumstances of the film's production. There are three bits under the next section, Unseen Home Movies—that's a highlight reel (02m:13s) from a Passover seder; a few words (00:27s) from Grandma; and a clip (03m:18s) from Jesse's last night at home before going to prison, in which he ponders what to leave as his outgoing answering machine message, considering that he wouldn't be back for at least six years.

Next section: The Case, with four featurettes that seem as if they were cut from a very long first assembly of the film. The first (03m:31s) features a principal witness for the prosecution, relaying tales of gang rape; these are horrible if they're true, but this guy seems seriously disturbed. Great Neck Outraged (03m:31s) talks about the community banding together against the Friedmans. (It's not mentioned by name, but the meeting place of choice is clearly my old haunt, the Scobee Diner, on Northern Boulevard.) We also hear the nasty messages left for the Friedmans, many of them brimming with anti-Semitism. Additional Suspects (07m:17s) shows the police as witch hunters, pretty much, bringing charges against a friend of Jesse's, and then getting that friend to cut a deal and testify against the Friedmans. Similarly, The Investigation (08m:16s) makes the police work look even more shoddy, what one of the alleged victim's mothers calls a "fishing expedition"—the police happily plied these kids with pizza from Gino's, on Middle Neck Road, to get them to go along with the stories of abuse.

Under The Family are sections about Arnold (featuring his retirement party—he seems to have been a much-loved teacher), Elaine (including her tale of being arrested during the police search of her house—she tried to use the phone), Jesse (especially interesting is his life after prison, with a girlfriend, an ankle bracelet so he can be monitored by his parole officer, and a Capturing the Friedmans bumper sticker on the wall in his apartment), and David. The last is maybe the most interesting—it's Just a Clown (20m:11s), the project that led Jarecki to this documentary. In his professional guise, as Silly Billy, David Friedman is one angry clown, but he became the toast of the town, apparently, the party entertainment of choice for the Park Avenue crowd—factor out what you learned from Capturing the Friedmans, and this is a companion piece to The Nanny Diaries.

There's also an Audio Scrapbook, with still more bits and pieces of the Friedmans; and finally, under The Score, is a visit (07m:19s) with Andrea Morricone, who provides the music, which was recorded in Rome, a good long way from the house of Friedman.

And then the DVD-ROM content, which is considerable, including Arnold's jailhouse autobiography, his candid discussion of his sexual history; the police report on the search of the Friedman home; a blueprint of their house; a psychologists' report on the alleged victims in the case; a supportive letter to Arnold from one of his former students; and a vindictive, paranoiac Family Contract, which begins: "WHEREAS our enemies would like nothing better than to see us divided and fighting." Last but certainly not least is an MP3 file, a recording of Jazzbo Mambo, by one Arnito Rey—this was Arnold's alias when he played the Catskills in the 1950s, and cut Xavier Cugat-like records such as this one. It's impossible to think that you might, but if after all of this you still have more questions about the Friedmans, they're fielding e-mails at the film's official website.

Extras Grade: A


Final Comments

As disturbing and moving a film as you're ever likely to see, Capturing the Friedmans is a tale of family life gone awry, and a meditation on memory and truth every bit as profound as Rashomon and Absalom, Absalom! That's rarified company, but then, this is an extraordinary movie, on par with the best of the Maysles brothers and Frederick Wiseman.


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