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'Capturing the Friedmans'

'Friedmans' is tragic, compelling

Friday, July 04, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Rubbernecking is an involuntary reaction to "Capturing the Friedmans," a compelling and troubling documentary about a family so dysfunctional that it makes the notion of the Osbournes turning into the Osmonds seem like a reality show instead of a commercial.


RATING: Unrated; contains harsh language, sexual themes.

DIRECTOR: Andrew Jarecki.


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Arnold Friedman, a respected Long Island schoolteacher with a wife and three sons, lived in the affluent suburb of Great Neck. On the day before Thanksgiving in 1987, police officers battered down the front door of their home and arrested Arnold and his youngest son, Jesse, who was 18 at the time. They were charged with sexually abusing students in the computer class Arnold taught in the basement of the house.

Were they in fact guilty? Or did overzealous investigators carried along on a national wave of hysteria over the issue induce evidence of what they honestly believed must have happened?

"Capturing the Friedmans" will have you changing your mind back and forth with each new startling revelation. By the time the film ends, you may feel no one knows for sure what happened. Jesse may be innocent, or he may have just convinced himself he is. The computer students may have been molested or, as an expert in the film suggests, the police interrogation may have persuaded them it must have happened.

But even viewers who end up disagreeing on the issue of guilt or innocence may be able to agree on the notion that the Friedmans eventually would have torn themselves apart even if there had been no charges, no arrests, not the smallest cloud of suspicion hanging over them.

Arnold showed little interest in his wife, Elaine, who by her own admission was cool and remote as a mother and wife. Both of them were born into difficult circumstances that partly explain the imperfect adults they became. Arnold had his dirty little secrets, one of which eventually led to the sex-abuse charges.

After the arrests, there could be no secrets. Not only were the police investigating their lives but the family started recording its own self-destruction. The oldest son, David, had just gotten a video camera. Maybe he wanted a record of what was happening or maybe, as he said later, he taped everything so he wouldn't have to remember it.

It doesn't matter. Director Andrew Jarecki cuts the home movies into his narrative. They reveal the family's most intimate emotions -- 10,000-volt currents of recrimination and anguish, blame and betrayal. They lay into each other at a Passover seder or while trying to prepare for their legal defense.

The twists don't end as the cases approach trial and the family, naturally, disagrees on the best strategy. Still more amazing revelations come out in the maneuvering. Even now, Jarecki said, no one can agree on everything.

Original newspaper articles about the case contain some details Jarecki omitted from his film that might affect opinions about the guilt or innocence of the Friedmans.

There can be little doubt, though, about the tragic fault lines undermining this family.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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