DVD Review of Capturing The Friedmans

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/18/05


  This documentary film by Andrew Jarecki, founder of Moviefone, is simply one of the best ever made. It does everything a documentary should- ask questions, provide insights, and allow a viewer to draw their own, if differing, conclusions. The film started out as a short film on New York City clowns, following the lifestyle of Silly Billy- played by David Friedman. During the course of filming Jarecki found out that Friedman’s brother and father, Jesse and Arnold Friedman, were convicted pedophiles- which makes the viewer wonder about David’s chosen profession.

  When I picked up this DVD I thought it was on the 1990s spy case involving the traitor with a Jewish name I forget. Instead, it’s about the last big 1980s sex ring pseudo-case- the most famous being the McMartin Daycare case. Like that this case was way overblown and innocents suffered many false accusations. The difference is that at the center of the case was an admitted pedophile- Arnold Friedman, a retired science teacher who taught computer classes from his basement home with his eighteen year old son Jesse. They, and three neighbor boys, were not only charged with sodomy and sexual abuse, but patently ridiculous charges that were typical of the era before False Memory Syndrome was scoped out. On Thanksgiving of 1987, the Friedman home in Great Neck, Long Island, was invaded by a SWAT team, intent on nailing Arnold for buying child pornography through the mail.

  Thus began the end of the family. Wife Elaine, a cold, humorless woman reviled by David, is shown as a clueless harpy who spent years loathing her husband’s relationships with his sons before any of the scandal hit, David- who bought a video camera to detail the family’s demise- defends his father to the point of absurdity, middle brother Seth refused to participate in the film, Jesse- released after serving thirteen years in jail- seems the most stable member of the family, while Arnold seems pathetic. An admitted pedophile, his existence, however, argues against the notion that all pedophiles are aberrational monsters, are totally evil. That he was sick and confused is beyond doubt, but the viewer is not sure that his eventual punishment- prison and suicide- fit the crime. In short, he declaims while innocent of the Satanic and bizarre sex ring crimes, he admits to molesting two boys over a forty year period, but having deep feelings for both.

  Worse than the collapse of the family is the collapse of American Justice in the film. The whole case against the Friedmans was based on lies by coerced children- one smug, anonymous liar who admits to being hypnotized, and contradicts his own claims, shoddy police work by investigators desperate for a conviction to advance their careers, terrible legal counsel on all sides, and a judge that determined their guilt without ever going to trial. Toss in the media and it’s no wonder that the case never went to trial- it was impossible to get a fair trial in that milieu.

  The family seems to have a history of voyeurism, denial, and pedophilia, going back to Arnold’s father’s bizarrely sexualized home movies of Arnold’s sister in a tutu in the 1940s, Arnold’s admission to sexually abusing his younger brother Howard, and possibly his sons- who deny the claims. The only stumble the film makes is by waiting to the end to reveal Howard is an out of the closet gay. By doing so, it plays right into ignorant viewers’ linkages of ‘straight’ homosexuality with pedophilia. Is Howard gay because Arnold raped him, and he sublimated the fact for the boundless love for his brother? Manifestly, Arnold was a homosexual whose upbringing and personality did not gibe with coming out. He seemingly fixated on his teen love for teen boys, and thwarted in that early on, grew obsessed with it- to the point of child pornography and molestation. Jesse, on the other hand, seems to have been innocent, and given terrible legal counsel, which resulted in him admitting to a crime he wasn’t guilty of since his father admitted to the absurd charges in a purgation of his hidden crimes.

  The prosecutors are reprehensible- claiming mounds of porno all over the house, while photos taken the moment the cops busted in showed one small hidden stash in Arnold’s private room. A female prosecutor contradicts herself many times, her bias is evident, and- ala the OJ Simpson case- while Arnold’s guilt for that he was accused of may be wrong, there’s little doubt the cops more or less framed him. Yet, Jarecki lets them all prattle on- David, in his belief that, contrary to Arnold’s admissions, his father was totally innocent, to Jesse’s lawyer- who may be the worst attorney in the nation. All speak with authority- yet those things verifiable undercut almost every assertion. Many of the original accusers now say they lied, under pressure from parents and police- one father of a ‘victim’ admits that police pressured his son. Many of the 107 counts against Arnold and 245 counts against Jesse simply could not have occurred in the time frames claimed, and physical evidence was utterly non-existent. Add to that the fact that pedophiles almost always act alone, for fear of being caught, and the whole bizarreness of that time and place shines through.

  The DVD extras- on a second disk- are bountiful and insightful. Jarecki is as fair and balanced in the extras as he is in the film- showing multiple confrontations between many of the people featured in the film at the after film screening, footage following Jesse’s life after release from prison, an insightful interview on the PBS Charlie Rose show, and many other tidbits on the family, including the original short film on David’s clown life- including a persona where he admits to loving scaring children with horrible-seeming acts. Watching this film after the main film will have Freudians masturbating. Finally, the commentary is one of the best on DVD- you get extras on both the family and the film that, again, contradict each other, and the film commented upon.

  Capturing The Friedmans is one of those endless Chinese dolls-within-dolls conundra which begs for repeat viewing. One is left hoping that such witch hunts are a thing of the past, but knowing they are not. That you, your child, or a friend, could be the next Jesse Friedman- whether you feel him guilty or not- is a quease that won’t leave, and why the film is great art.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 1/05 Hackwriters website.]

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