Friday, January 22, 2016

What to Make of "Making a Murderer"

It's been the trendiest of water cooler discussion topics of late, and I'm now equipped to participate: I recently finished watching all 10 episodes of Netflix's documentary series, Making a Murderer. If you're one of the few who hasn't at least heard of it, the documentary chronicles the story of Steven Avery, a man who spent 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, only to be freshly accused of a murder soon after his exoneration and release.

Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos are the dynamic duo behind this documentary, and they've created something compulsively watchable, the sort of binge-worthy experience that is Netflix's bread and butter. Through its editing, Making a Murderer brings narrative conventions of episodic drama to the telling of a real-life story. So it's no surprise how compelling it is. You have sympathetic protagonists and detestable antagonists. You have plot twists and reversals, highs and lows. Each episode ends with a cliffhanger that leaves you eager to know what will happen next. This is addictive television. You could argue that there's something a bit ghoulish in mining real people's lives for entertainment, but I personally don't find Making a Murderer exploitative in the manner of, say, most reality television. Ricciardi and Demos are simply presenting their documentary in the most lively and engaging way they can.

But then, exploitation is hardly at the forefront of the accusations some people are leveling at the two filmmakers. A quick Google search will quickly drown you in articles cataloging the evidence they chose to leave out, decrying their manipulative framing of the story, and more. Personally, I don't think of news reporters and documentarians as equivalent. It's the job of the former to relate objective truth; it's the job of the latter to present a compelling story or argument. Some documentary makers choose to strike as neutral a tone as possible, but I don't see that as a requirement. (Indeed, I think it often leads to a rather boring documentary.)

Yet the fact that so many people are focused on this issue of "omitted facts of the case" is the foundation of one criticism I think could be fairly leveled at the filmmakers: they don't quite make the point they set out to make. Ricciardi and Demos have been giving a lot of interviews lately, and they always try to divert focus away from the question of Steven Avery's guilt or innocence. Instead, they note that their larger point is about the flaws of the criminal justice system in the United States. And there is plenty in the documentary that speaks to this: that so many people involved in the process are pressured to pursue incarcerations rather than truth, that the poor are horribly disadvantaged in a courtroom compared to the wealthy, and more. The documentary does hit these points. It just doesn't hit them with nearly the effectiveness as the coverage of Avery's case in particular.

There's no voice of a narrator in Making a Murderer, and while this is a directorial choice that's incredibly effective at pulling the audience in rather than keeping them at arm's distance, it may also be the reason for this confusion. So many people are walking away from the series not asking the questions about justice in general that Ricciardi and Demos would have them ask; instead, absent a voice from on high to guide the viewer's thoughts, many are coalescing around Steven Avery. The major question is not meant to be "is Steven Avery guilty?" but rather, "is this an acceptable method by which a person can be found guilty?" I think the documentary answers that question with a clear and loud "no," but is not as clear about extrapolating that answer to the system at large. So as a targeted think piece or call to action, you could argue that Making a Murderer misses its intended mark.

That said, plenty of movies, books, songs, you name it, are loved by people for reasons completely other than what the creator intended. Ultimately, Making a Murderer is a piece of entertainment. And a damn... well... entertaining one. Watching it, you'll feel shock, rage, emptiness, futility, concern, sympathy, and lots more in between. So really, I can't recommend the series highly enough. I give Making a Murderer, perceive warts and all, an enthusiastic A.

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