HBO’s Pamela Smart Doc ‘Captivated’ Explores the Insidiousness of the Observer Effect

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On May 1, 1990, Pamela Smart came home to her New Hampshire condominium and found her husband Greggory dead, the victim of what seemed, at first, a robbery gone awry. The crime turned out to be much more salacious: Smart, a media coordinator for the local school district, had allegedly seduced a 15-year-old boy and convinced him and three friends to bump off her husband. Maybe you saw the story when it was turned into a TV movie, with Helen Hunt as Smart and Chad Allen as her young lover; more likely, you saw Gus Van Sant’s fictionalized take To Die For, from Joyce Maynard’s novel, with Nicole Kidman and Joaquin Phoenix. Or maybe you remember the media frenzy surrounding Smart’s trial, which was the first such proceeding ever televised in its entirety. That trial — and the many prisms through which it was viewed, at the time and subsequently — is the subject of Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, a gripping new documentary premiering tonight on HBO.

Some context is necessary. Keep in mind, the Smart trial commenced in March of 1991, a pre-Court TV, pre-Real World era; there was an unmistakable novelty to watching a trial on television, where (as one of the film’s interview subjects recalls) “nothing happens, and it’s totally fascinating.” The local television stations preempted the daytime soap operas for the trial, and no wonder, since this was a story good enough for a soap: sex, murder, adultery, lies, and the always-salacious draw of an attractive female teacher seducing a student. And it really happened, to boot.

Captivated is a riveting procedural, telling a fascinating story augmented by extensive archival footage (much of it weathered and fuzzy, as all old video should be), and if director Jeremiah Zagar had left it at that, I’d still recommend it. But this is a film with much more on its mind. It opens with the image of an empty theater, where the curtains part to reveal a stage, totally bare save for a tiny television. It’s not exactly a subtle image, but this wasn’t a subtle case.

Zagar’s innovative structure shows us the trial first as TV viewers saw it — an open-and-shut case, it seems. But then he goes back, drills down, and looks closer. He changes angles, shifts perspectives, and asks different questions. And most of all, he looks at how the camera — the news camera, the courtroom camera, the film camera — alters not only what we see, but how we see it.

To the first point: there is a scientific principle known as the Observer Effect, which boils down to the simple idea that observation changes action. Anyone who’s ever been in front of a camera and instructed to “act naturally” can vouch for the validity of this theory; we act differently when we know we are being watched. This issue has always been at the heart of the question of cameras in the courtroom; it is our very nature, when put in front of a camera and (presumptively) an audience, to perform. Suddenly, the prosecutors and defense attorneys and judges aren’t just doing their jobs — they’re playing roles. And so are the witnesses. And so are the defendants.

The less noted, but equally important idea on Zagar’s mind is how we, as viewers, process and re-frame what we see. “Seeing humanity on a screen, it loses humanity,” notes Maynard. “It’s just these images.” And as Captivated carefully explains, our tendency as viewers is not to accumulate those images to form a picture, but to use them to reinforce a preexisting narrative. Smart was “the beautiful woman brought down,” the Black Widow who preyed on her sexual partner, the smoky femme fatale. The most widely circulated image of Smart was a sexy bikini photo, supposedly snapped for her young lover; Zagar discovers it was one of a series she and a girlfriend took for a contest. We see things as we want to see them; we see things in their simplest terms, which explains a whole lot about what we currently, and almost comically, dub “reality television.”

Smart herself wasn’t free of this kind of thinking; a local reporter recalls her playing the role of the grieving widow, suggesting shots for his package. The case’s arresting detective is seen explaining a key point, then stopping himself: “Lemme go back again, a little more emotional,” he decides, and does so. One of the accomplices in the case is interviewed after his release from prison, and swears he was present for a conversation that he wasn’t there for; it turns out, he’s remembering a scene from the Helen Hunt TV movie. No one gets away from Captivated clean: not the viewer, not the participants, not even the filmmaker. Joyce Chopra, who directed that TV movie back in 1991, muses that they’ve spent 20 years exploiting this case. And then she smiles, and gestures towards Zagar’s camera. “As you are doing.”

Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart premieres tonight on HBO.