But at its core, Jarecki's masterpiece is a mystery, and to read too much about it before witnessing the copiously documented crimes of which Arnold Friedman and son Jesse were accused -- the Friedmans were videotape fetishists, long before most Americans began pointing their own camcorders at their navels -- dispels some of the movie's tension. You will want to blame someone for what occurs on screen, in footage old and brand-new, but do not let a stranger make your decision for you; read on if you must, but see and decide for yourself whether Arnold was a monster or merely a disturbed man and Jesse his willing accomplice or just a kid in the wrong house at the wrong time. Capturing the Friedmans does not end after its credits roll; audiences will try the case over and over again in their heads. Jarecki does not judge, but leaves only tragic clues for us to ponder.
His film began as a short about New York City kiddy-party entertainers, of which David Friedman, the eldest son of Arnold and Elaine Friedman, remains the Top Clown. But Jarecki shifted his focus when David began dropping clues about a tragic family secret, which, from Thanksgiving 1987 through the spring of '88, had actually been big and inescapable news in the affluent New York suburb. Then-56-year-old Arnold Friedman, a beloved and award-winning schoolteacher, was busted for sending and receiving magazines in which young boys were pictured engaging in sexual acts. Prosecutors also discovered Arnold was teaching computer classes in the house and began contacting students, some of whom said that Arnold and 18-year-old Jesse, the youngest son, had raped them in Jesse's bedroom and in a bathroom. There was no physical evidence, only the testimony of students, some of whom would later insist they said what they believed the cops wanted to hear, and others who would say they recalled the assaults only when placed under hypnosis.
At the core of the film is the investigation, the trial, the inevitable outcome; in present day, Jarecki gives ample time for prosecutors to recount their case, for now-grown students to tell what may or may not have happened, for Jesse and David and Elaine to tell their sides of the story. But the movie is far more than a glossy episode of Dateline; it's no mere voyeuristic whodunit from which we can turn the channel as appalled or appeased bystanders.
The Friedmans put so much of their lives on film that we're witnesses literally to the birth and death of a family. We see Arnold and Elaine in happier times, as young newlyweds frolicking in the surf and as young parents to three beautiful little boys (including middle son Seth, who refused to be interviewed for the film). We see Arnold and the boys making Super-8 mayhem, mugging for the camera -- right up until it was time for Arnold, and then Jesse, to be sentenced for the crimes of which they'd been accused. We see what feels like every smile and hear what feels like every screaming argument; even Passover Seder, a gathering of family, dissolves into a dinner at which recrimination is served with a heaping side of regret. If Arnold captured the family in good times, it was David who caught all the ugliness on his new camera -- so, as he says later, he could witness the dissolution of the Friedmans without actually having to remember it. The subtext of this movie, our obsession with documenting the minutiae of our lives in order to make bigger sense of it later, becomes its eventual text. David even allows Jarecki access to his bitter, expletive-laden, breakdown-inducing video diaries made in the late '80s, which were never intended to be seen. (Or, you have to wonder, were they?)
Jarecki does cheat a little toward film's end, when revelations come out that might have put into sharper focus things said and seen earlier; it feels like a trick when we're shown very late the longtime partner of Arnold's brother Howard -- the brother Arnold says he raped when the two were kids sharing a bed in a single-room basement apartment. It's one more blank we're left to fill in, and it comes just as we're about to walk out: Was Arnold being punished, more than anything else, for being a closeted homosexual, unlike his younger sibling? Then again, what's one more question heaped upon the dozens we're forced to confront by this harrowing, tragic movie? Especially when it provides not a single answer.