Pamela Smart, the sexpot schoolteacher who seduced three teenage boys to shoot her husband, has been imprisoned without parole since 1991. Her official release year is sometime in 9999, assuming that human civilization is still alive. Yet the captive in Jeremiah Zagar's Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart isn't her. It's us, the viewers who became transfixed by the first televised murder trial.
The first full day of Sundance screenings kicked off with this measured documentary that flatters the filmmakers and editors in the packed theater by declaring that they're as powerful as God. Which in Smart's case is true enough -- at least, they were certainly as powerful as the judge and jury who convicted her of murder nine months after she'd been convicted in the public eye.
Before her case even went to court -- hell, two days before jurors were even selected -- Smart's story was turned into a TV movie with all the memorable details groomed into place: the 22-year-old ambitious ex-cheerleader, the unsuspecting husband, the three dumb luck boys born on the wrong side of the tracks. Helen Hunt played Smart, and the town's main reporter asked to play himself. The local newspaper ran full-page ads for the flick. But instead of sequestering the jury, the judge (who said he hoped he'd be played by Clint Eastwood in the next remake) let them go home every day with just a pinkie swear that they'd try not to be influenced by their friends, family, and the media screaming for her blood.
There was another movie, but alas, the judge never got his cowboy moment. But this time Smart was reenacted by Nicole Kidman in Gus Van Sant's imperceptibly veiled satire To Die For.
"That's not my story," says Smart, who agreed to several interviews for Zagar's doc. "That's not my life at all." Most people couldn't tell the difference, and so these two Pamelas -- the Van Halen-obsessed, barely-adult-herself geek and the fictional temptress -- merged until even witnesses in the case who testified otherwise now swear that the movie scenes quote the truth.
Zagar stops just short of arguing for Smart's innocence, but he pokes enough holes in our perception of the facts that in a show of hands at the post-screening Q&A, half the audience who'd assumed she was guilty said they'd changed their minds. Yet when a woman stood up and said she'd like to start a letter-writing campaign to free Smart, only a handful of people applauded in support.
Still, even Zagar admits his own doc, itself edited from hundreds of hours of footage, can't possibly capture the real story. And to prove it, Captivated opens with a curtain drawing back on action as if reminding us that everything on a screen -- be it film or news -- is never the unedited truth.
Is Smart guilty? I'm not sure myself. But I am convinced that she didn't get a fair trial or sentence. And worse, that all it takes to convict a woman in the public eye is a tabloid snap of her in a bra. Look no further than the facts: the shooter, Billy Flynn, is set to be released next year. Smart will never be free again.
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Amy Nicholson is reporting on the Sundance Film Festival for the Observer. Follow her on Twitter at @theamynicholson.