From his groundbreaking 1988 documentary “The Thin Blue Line” to his Oscar-winning “The Fog of War,” Cambridge filmmaker Errol Morris has built his storied career out of penetrating interviews and forensic-level investigations.
Now Morris finds himself in the glare of the spotlight in “A Wilderness of Error,” a five-part television docu-series inspired by his bestselling 2012 book of the same name. But instead of telling a story from behind the camera, Morris is staring into its lens as a narrator and a key interview subject. “It’s a new experience for me,” Morris acknowledges in a recent phone conversation. “It’s certainly a loss of control, because I’m a character in someone else’s series. But it’s a case that I feel very passionate about and I’m happy to talk about it. It’s a really tangled story.”
The series, adapted by Emmy-award winning producer Marc Smerling (“The Jinx,” “Capturing the Friedmans”), explores the notorious case of former Green Beret Jeffrey MacDonald, an Army surgeon who was convicted in 1979 of killing his pregnant wife and two young daughters nine years earlier at their home in Fort Bragg, N.C.
Airing on FX Friday and Oct. 2, “A Wilderness of Error” examines a murder case that grabbed national headlines and captured the public imagination thanks to Joe McGinniss’s bestseller “Fatal Vision” and a blockbuster 1984 television adaptation. That miniseries, seen by 65 million people, helped reinforce an image of MacDonald as a sociopathic killer hiding behind the facade of a charming, articulate, seemingly mild-mannered man of medicine. The case was chronicled in books, documentaries, and news specials over the past several decades.
“Jeffrey is such an unlikely killer,” Smerling says. “I think that’s what’s kept this story alive for so long.”
“There’s something endlessly puzzling about Jeffrey, [especially] to someone who has a family, like myself,” Morris says. “If he did this, he did something almost inconceivably barbaric and brutal.”
MacDonald, now 76 and serving three consecutive life sentences in federal prison, has always maintained his innocence. He has claimed from the beginning that four drug-addled hippie intruders broke into his home, attacked and subdued him, and murdered his family — wife Colette, 26, and daughters Kimberley, 5, and Kristen, 2.
The story sounded suspicious, and investigators suspected MacDonald had concocted the wild tale based on the Manson family murders in Los Angeles, which had happened six months before. He also made an infamous appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show” later that year in which he complained about his treatment by Army investigators and didn’t seem grief-stricken over the gruesome loss of his family.
Still, MacDonald has his share of defenders, including Morris, who wrote “Wilderness” to highlight what he viewed as a botched investigation, slanted prosecution, and a case riddled with inconsistencies and errors. “I feel pretty strongly that this is a messed-up case, and it was messed up by the police and by the prosecution from the get-go,” Morris says. “We know that evidence can be corrupted, lost, elided, misinterpreted, and we know that in the MacDonald case, a lot of evidence went uncollected and corrupted.”
“ ‘The Thin Blue Line’ sensitized me in so many ways to prosecutorial misconduct,” says Morris of his film, which helped free a death-row inmate thanks to revelations he uncovered. “And I have no doubt that the prosecution behaved execrably in [the MacDonald] case.”
Not everybody agreed with that assessment. In a 2012 Washington Post Magazine article about the book, reporter Gene Weingarten disputed many of Morris’s assertions and arguments. “There are many significant, incriminating facts glossed over in, or completely omitted from [the book],” Weingarten wrote.
When Smerling first read “Wilderness,” he knew it would be difficult to adapt. “I would say Errol inspired who I am in a lot of ways . . . And he invented what I do to a large extent,” he says about the technique of stylized recreations, which Morris trailblazed into the mainstream and Smerling employs in the series.
He acknowledges he was wary of “getting into a sharp-elbowed match” with a filmmaker noted for his skillful interviews. So he traveled to Cambridge to meet with Morris and asked him: “What happens if I come down on the other side of this, or I come down in a way that makes you unhappy?" He recalls Morris replying: "No worries. I just want somebody to do this and take a closer look at it. I know you’ll dig deep.”
He aimed to start from scratch and talk to everyone he could who was associated with the case. “I wanted to straighten out the line between all the various strands of storytelling and the reality of what happened,” Smerling says.
Central to “Wilderness” is the story of the “girl in a floppy hat” and white boots, who MacDonald claimed was part of the group of intruders. “There were number of flies in the [original] prosecution’s ointment,” Morris says. “But the principal fly was this strange woman, Helena Stoeckley.”
Stoeckley, a drug addict who died in 1983, confessed multiple times over the years to being present at the killings, though the details of her accounts often shifted. Other times she claimed to have no recollection of the murders. Had she lied on the witness stand at MacDonald’s trial when she denied any involvement? Were her confessions believable?
In the series, Smerling scrutinizes the many alterations to her story and demonstrates that she may have been manipulated by law enforcement handlers who were working with her as an informant. In Smerling’s view, “There are a lot of contradictions in her story I think that really challenge her credibility.”
While Morris was happy to take part in the docu-series, he says that Smerling’s adaptation differs from his book. “I’ve hemmed and hawed about whether I feel the series captures the book, in part because I like Marc Smerling, and I don’t want to get involved in some kind of pissing contest of series versus book. But I think that Marc’s interests are not identical to mine.”
In his book, Morris argues that people must guard against getting caught up in the seductive pull of a compelling story while ignoring clear evidence. Still, he acknowledges in the series that even he isn’t “immune” to downplaying certain details or advancing a preferred narrative.
The pursuit of truth is something Morris, a former private detective, believes in passionately. “It’s a fascinating case for me because it’s almost a philosophical essay on the nature of investigation and the nature of truth,” he says. “These themes are so relevant. The whole country is wrestling with [the contradictions of] narrative versus truth right now.”
In 1990, Janet Malcolm’s treatise “The Journalist and the Murderer” excoriated McGinniss for his dealings with MacDonald and indicted the journalistic profession for what she viewed as a devil’s bargain writers strike with their sources, and the manipulations and betrayals inherent in that exchange. (Smerling has produced a companion podcast, “Morally Indefensible,” that dives deeper into McGinniss’s book and Malcolm’s critique.) Both authors have endured their share of pointed criticism from Morris and others. So it’s no surprise that Morris feared getting singed himself in examining a complex case that has prompted such heated debate.
“Nobody seems to be able to touch this story,” Smerling concludes, “without getting burned a little bit.”
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.
A WILDERNESS OF ERROR
On: FX. First three episodes air Sept. 25 at 8 p.m. Episodes stream on Hulu the following day.