There is a bit of a snake eating its own tail syndrome that can come out of the recent trend in documentaries to look at people and events in the way media treated them at the time beyond simply examining what happened during them. A piece of media examining the often predatory effect of media bias. Societal context is certainly not a new concept, nor is the attempt to ameliorate the character by pointing to their public mistreatment as a root cause for their troubles, but with high profile documentaries like Amy, the Academy Award winning film about Amy Winehouse, and Weiner, a look at Anthony Weiner’s disastrous comeback mayoral bid marred by his second (but not last, as we’ve seen) sexting scandal, it has never been more of a force in the genre like it is now. Netflix has been stepping up their documentary game for some time, underwriting quite a few Oscar nominated features like The Square and What Happened, Miss Simone?, and their newest release, a look at the sensationalist Amanda Knox murder trial in Italy, falls right into the groove worn in by Amy and Weiner.
Amanda Knox’s trial is just the sort of event to get the worst aspects of media coverage into a tizzy. A young, beautiful American exchange student’s roommate brutally murdered became the tawdry tabloid story of drugs, alcohol and a depraved sex game gone wrong, with Knox and her lover Raffaele Sollecito painted as real life Natural Born Killers, gleefully melding sex and death. You can imagine 24 hour news networks and the rapidly declining print journalism industry salivating at the prospect. Soon enough, after discovering the nickname “Foxy Knoxy” on an old MySpace profile, Knox was forever branded in the rags with that epithet, damaging her forever in the court of public opinion, her seven sexual partners at age 20 confirming she is some kind of self-contained walking brothel with an “always open” sign blinking overhead.
Who cares about the facts of the case anyway, right?
Directors Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn hang their exploration of Knox’s series of trials through three major interviews that snake their way through Amanda Knox’s 92 minutes. There’s Knox herself, with haunted eyes as she recounts the four years of her life lost, and Italian prosecutor Giuliano Mignini, still utterly convinced of his own view of the events. Getting both to appear is a feather in the directors’ caps; so often documentaries like this, especially those about contentious court cases, only get candid interviews from one side of the struggle. It’s the addition of Daily Mail journalist Nick Pisa as the third leg of this tripod that makes Amanda Knox so explosive. Pisa is, to put it simply, the dictionary definition of a cad, so proud of himself at all times. He revels in the discovery of the Foxy Knoxy moniker (even going as far as cherry picking pictures from her social media profiles to make her look unstable) and remorselessly praising his own part in the whole circus. He is a war profiteer, positioned directly between the woman convicted of murder twice and the man who might still think she was guilty even after being acquitted twice, an agent provocateur more interested in his own fame and fortune than silly nonsense like “the truth” or “journalistic integrity.”
Where Amy and Weiner demonized the media that devoured their scandals with relish from afar, crystallizing their calumny through supercuts of late night comedians and assaultive paparazzi camera flashes. Amanda Knox gets its share of these moments as well, but the added ability to then cut to the menace himself as he talks about his role in it all like some smug conquering hero brings it into such sharp relief that the blood boils even more. Amanda’s story is fascinating enough as a tale of true crime, and the prosecution’s deeply flawed tunnel vision based on circumstantial evidence (canoodling with Sollecito after the murder and her having “crazy eyes” are legitimate considerations in the prosecution’s case) and bias brings echoes of Netflix’s other smash true crime doc, Making a Murderer, but the access the filmmakers have to the media side of the equation sets up an antagonist to truly root against that elevates an otherwise perfunctory look at the case. Amanda is understandably sympathetic, and Gianluigi less so, but they’re both saints compared to Nick Pisa.
The lasting image of Amanda Knox comes when the first appeal leads to an acquittal. The camera takes to the streets outside the courtroom, where protesters convinced of her guilt rage into the night, screaming “shame!,” outraged at a court case they did not see first hand. If they had been in the room, they would have seen the overwhelming lack of physical evidence, the unintentional but thorough tampering of DNA, the questionable evidence gathering methods, all of it leading to abandoning her conviction. But for these people, there was never a question. She was only Foxy Knoxy, a monster and a murderer, and nothing could convince them otherwise. Innocent until proven guilty is the parlance of our court systems, but that statute never holds the same scrutiny in the court of public opinion, where opportunistic reporters can twist the truth however they see fit, bowing at the altar of newspapers sold, of news shows watched, of headlines clicked. The consequences of these actions are far-reaching, especially when their initial assumptions are proven incorrect. Amanda Knox is an excellent, engrossing look at just how devastating that can be.