It’s a classic story blueprint, what we like to call a trope, one that dates back to a lady named Eve. An attractive but icy woman lures a decent man into her clutches. She hands him an “apple,” which is another way of saying she has sex with him, and then she destroys his life. She’s the black widow, she’s the spider woman, she’s Alexis Morell Carrington Colby Dexter Rowan.
A new film, part of HBO’s excellent Monday night documentary series, suggests that this trope worked against a fair trial for Pamela Smart, the 47-year-old New Hampshire woman now serving a life term for orchestrating the 1990 murder of her husband. Directed by Jeremiah Zagar, “Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart” makes the case that our familiarity with this plotting-wife narrative — Smart was accused of coaxing her teenage lover to commit the murder — led us to quickly pigeonhole her. Even Smart herself seemed to play along, an emotionless and vain character out of central casting who wore bows in her hair throughout the trial.
It’s a fascinating topic in this age of litigation as entertainment, which more or less began with the Smart trial. Are we all too eager to fit real-life crimes into the kinds of stories we see on TV, in novels, in the movies, and in the Bible? Is there any way to find a jury untainted by all the media portrayals surrounding such a juicy trial, a jury unbiased by the sight of Smart doing press in then-stylish shoulder pads and looking suspiciously OK about her widowhood?
At one point in “Captivated,” we hear a talking head note that “the trial had higher ratings than the afternoon soap operas.” It’s his way of saying that many viewers saw the Smart trial as little more than a piece of cultural theater, not fully aware of the difference between “One Life to Live” and the gravely serious effort to determine one person’s future and address the violent crime that put her on the defense.
All the material in “Captivated” that involves media distortion and justice is relatively interesting. It’s not a new idea; experts and talking heads have been passionately debating media impact since the O.J. Simpson trial blew the mass appeal of courtroom television wide open. But it still bears thinking about, particularly now that reality TV has so thoroughly blurred the lines between real life and imposed story lines, as reality producers concoct prefabricated arcs to engage viewers.
Unfortunately, the movie spends far too much time revisiting the particulars of Smart’s case. Zagar goes back over some of the specifics of the trial to introduce doubt in our minds that Smart was treated fairly, particularly when he describes the way the accused boys — the killer, Billy Flynn, and three accomplices — were jailed together for months before her trial and had time to create a party line. He goes over details with some of the figures in the case, including Smart, who is currently in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in Westchester County, N.Y.
Raymond Fowler, one of the boys who admitted involvement in the murder, now in his early 40s and out of jail, shares his memories of Smart’s immediate reaction to news of the murder. As he talks, Zagar makes us wonder if he’s confusing what really happened with what happened in one of the movies about the Smart case, running clips from Helen Hunt’s TV movie “Murder in New Hampshire” over Fowler’s recollections. It’s a sobering moment for what it says about the power of entertainment, but not one that quite changes the game in terms of Smart’s current situation.
Toward the end of “Captivated,” which comes about 20 minutes later than it should, Smart talks about her hopes of getting out of prison one day. “What a great movie it will be if I get out, right?” More than most of us, she understands the vital importance of story lines and satisfying denouements.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.