The riddle of Amanda Knox was never really a riddle. In this country, at least, she was widely believed to be innocent of the crime of which she stood accused from the beginning. I can’t think of a single American journalist on the case who spoke of any doubts that Knox was telling the truth about not being in the shared Perugia house when her roommate Meredith Kercher was stabbed to death in her room on the November 1, 2007. There were, perhaps, a few like Nina Burleigh, who could admit that Knox had not behaved conventionally. In fact, in her book on the case, Burleigh writes that Knox might have been “emotionally stunted.” She still unquestionably argues for Knox’s innocence.
The facts of the case have long weighed in Knox’s favor. The man whose DNA was all over the crime scene, Rudy Guede, has been tried and convicted for Kercher’s murder. After some fairly standard criminal investigation bungling, it became clear that Knox’s own DNA was not at the crime scene. It also became clear that she had been repeatedly intimidated by investigators in the case into making a false confession. All of these facts were discussed over and over on cable news shows while the case stretched out.
But you wouldn’t know any of that if you took Netflix’s new Amanda Knox documentary as your only authority on the case. The production values are high. The music is ominous. But the villain here is not whoever killed Kercher. It’s whoever persecuted Knox, and kept her in jail for four years for a crime she did not commit. The documentary, in a somewhat confusing retelling of the facts, seems even somewhat unsure of who that is. The Italian prosecutor? The public? It presents the bad facts about each. It shows you the people screaming in Italian town squares, when Knox was ultimately acquitted, that she was a murderer. It presents you with the prosecutor who really, I think, should have been a novelist, so elegantly do the tendrils of his ridiculous imagination unfurl before us.
But really the documentary wants to take aim at that amorphous entity, “the media.” It presents you with Nick Pisa, a freelance Daily Mail journalist wearing a cheap-looking suit. “A murder always gets people going,” he offers in a Fleet Street accent, “a bit of intrigue. A bit of mystery. A whodunit.” He praises the murder’s gruesomeness. The documentary then does a quick and almost imperceptible cut to Pisa saying, “I mean, what more would you want in a story?”
We hear the media’s camera shutters clicking and flashing over Kercher’s body as it is carried out of the house in Perugia. We hear them ask Knox’s father, after she’s been returned home to Seattle, whether or not he is concerned that she might lose her status as a “hot property” for an exclusive interview. Curt Knox furrows his brow. “Um,” he says, “I’m not looking at her as a hot property.” Not too much later Knox, still awaiting her final acquittal, is standing in front of a magazine rack, thinking about how the media had taken her sexual experiences and painted her a “bestial” harlot. “You have to wonder, what is it that everyone really cares about?” she says, in a voiceover. “But how entertaining.”
The point of each of these moments in the documentary—and there are innumerable other knocks on the breathless coverage of the case—is well taken. Among journalists there is a saying: “If it bleeds, it leads.” This can result in some serious hustling, and some serious sloppiness, whenever a crime occurs. The public’s longing to see and hear salacious details is, basically, endless. Over the last few years, social media has only provided people with new venues to egg each other on in that respect. Feeding the beast has become an increasingly morally compromised and professionally competitive endeavor.
But here’s a problem: the documentarians here, Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn, don’t seem to realize that in making this documentary, they have, by definition, joined the “media” team. And while they deserve plaudits for convincing Knox to talk to them, they hardly miss a chance, themselves, to exploit both her looks and her tears. The documentary uses long, lingering shots of Knox’s anguished face to shore up its own claims to moral superiority over those earlier journalists who they characterize as vultures.
There is a strong selection bias happening there, too. It was rather surprising not to see Nina Burleigh herself in this documentary, since she was such a popular and ever-present figure in the coverage at the time that The New York Times once wrote a whole article about her role in the case. I can think of a number of explanations why Burleigh might not have participated, but it’s hard not to suspect that the main problem was that her presence did not suit the filmmakers’ vision of themselves as Amanda’s saviors, as the people finally allowing her true story to get out there.
This is a problem plaguing so many of the true crime cultural products that we are now seeing, in the wake of the viral successes such as Serial and Making a Murderer. Eager to delve into stories they know that the public wants to hear, people forget themselves, they forget that their job isn’t so much to aggrandize themselves for “shining a light” on our cultural problems, as it is to ask harder questions about a case.
One of the many questions this documentary declines to ask, after all, is this very basic one: what, exactly, happened to Meredith Kercher? How and why did she die? The Kercher family didn’t talk to Blackhurst and McGinn, and of course that naturally reduces the ability of the documentarians to tell us anything about who she was. But their lack of interest in what actually happened to her even feels insensitive in that context. It’s easy to get both sentimental and self-righteous about the rights of victims. But the fact is, there was more than one victim in this case, not just Amanda Knox.