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A Wilderness of Error Review 2020 Tv Show Series Season Cast Crew Online
Stars: Clay Boulware, John Morgan, Logan Stearns
Marc Smerling and Errol Morris are members of an exclusive club.
Smerling, a producer, writer and cinematographer on HBO’s The Jinx, and Morris, helmer of The Thin Blue Line and the Oscar-winning The Fog of War, are documentarians whose efforts in the true crime space yielded change in the real world. If anybody is qualified to discuss the genre and its capacity to bring about justice, but also maybe its ability to obscure facts in a sea of storytelling artifice, it’s these two.
Taken in that context, FX’s five-part documentary series A Wilderness of Error is a must-watch for true crime devotees. The Blumhouse TV production, directed by Smerling and based at least in titular fashion on Morris’ book, is an introspective, twisty examination of our collective unease with seemingly unsolved or incorrectly solved mysteries. It looks too at the cost of demanding or, worse, imposing sought-after answers on the sloppiness of actual life.
The problem with A Wilderness of Error is that some viewers, and probably some critics as well, are going to approach it as a true crime documentary itself and not as a commentary on the form. In that light, it might be seen as a failure. I’d say it fully acknowledges that it’s a failure, so it comes down to your appetite for ouroboros.
Morris’ A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald, published in 2012, explores the apparent blunders and mismanagement of the law enforcement cases against Jeffrey MacDonald, a surgeon and Army officer charged with killing his wife and two daughters in 1970, a bloody nightmare he blamed on four hippies in the near-aftermath of the Manson murders.
So here’s where the ouroboros comes in: Smerling, who was integral to a documentary that contributed to the incarceration (murder trial pending) of Robert Durst, is making a movie about a fellow documentarian’s book that sought justice for an accused killer whose story was told previously in the book and blockbuster miniseries Fatal Vision, and then in different form in the book and telefilm Final Vision, about the writing of Fatal Vision.
As Morris puts it, “What happens when a narrative takes the place of reality? It’s almost as if nothing really happened in history unless it has been recorded in a movie or in a television series.”
The truth is that 50 years after the murders, the MacDonald case is much more fascinating as a saga of ongoing attempts to narrativize reality than as a carefully laid-out series of facts. So Smerling tackles the primary story here with an approach that can best be described as Errol Morris karaoke. Relying heavily on the sort of immaculately shot reenactments that are the most distinctive and the most contentious aspect of Morris’ style, Smerling dramatizes multiple versions of what was alleged to have occurred in February 1970, as well as MacDonald’s 1970 military trial and his subsequent 1979 civilian trial.
The reenactments are built around trial transcripts, trial audio, ample period news coverage and the myriad audio recordings made by MacDonald’s wife’s stepfather, Freddie Kassab, who began as one of MacDonald’s more passionate supporters and became one of his most dogged antagonists. (Karl Malden won an Emmy for playing Kassab in 1984’s Fatal Vision.) Many key figures from the decades-old case are no longer with us, but Smerling has accumulated interviews with prominent prosecuting and defense attorneys, one juror from the 1979 trial and a wide assortment of acquaintances and family members.
There’s a lot here. But even with all the information that’s cobbled together and stitched around the reenactments, I was left feeling that MacDonald’s case, from the beginning, was a jumble of superficial evidence and inconsistent stories told by a selection of unreliable narrators. They include Helena Stoeckley, who at various points was put forward as an exonerating witness and a potential suspect, a figure who somehow took polygraph tests confirming that she was and wasn’t at the crime scene. What we don’t have, especially given that MacDonald didn’t participate here, is much insight into motive, state of mind or a lot of the case’s biggest questions.
What you sense at a certain point is that Smerling is becoming less and less engaged by MacDonald’s case and more and more curious about why Morris was so engaged with it, why he latched onto certain details as cause for reasonable doubt and ignored others, why this was a case that became a two-part TV movie that drew 60 million primetime viewers when it premiered, why the story keeps being told over and over again.
“Every year somebody wants to throw a rope around my legs and drag me through the family pool of blood again,” says Bob Stevenson, brother of murder victim Colette MacDonald, a poignant reminder that any time you watch the 20th documentary about the Manson murders or Jeffrey Epstein or the Challenger disaster, it’s a story that countless affected people have had to tell, or have chosen not to tell, dozens of times. On the other side of the coin is Cliff Somers, a lead prosecutor on MacDonald’s initial Army hearing, who admits with some confusion that nobody had ever asked him to talk before.
It’s all tied together through Smerling’s chats with Morris, which start off as interviews woven into the documentary’s framework. But they become increasingly distanced from the MacDonald case and more about the two men’s shared professional obsessions. Smerling steps back further and further, first letting in-the-know audiences see that he’s interviewing Morris through a variation of the legendary Interrotron technology that Morris pioneered — “Am I directing here?” Morris ponders — to give the illusion of a direct connection between interview subject and the camera’s eye. Then Smerling steps back even further to show the entire interview setup. Just when a normal true crime documentary would be accentuating a revealed truth, Smerling is pointing out the artifice.
Audiences respond to true crime because in a world of uncertainty and obfuscation, we want to believe that answers are available and that truth is quantifiable and can be revealed. We want to believe that eventually Robert Durst will confess unequivocally into a live microphone, that Randall Dale Adams will walk out of jail and embrace Errol Morris for freeing him. A Wilderness of Error is about that need and about the discomfort that emerges when we can’t warp the facts to our need for closure. It’s an unsatisfying entry in a genre in which viewers usually demand satisfaction, and it’s all the more gripping for that.
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