Lifetime, not a network that one associates with provocative gestures and bold acts of shit-stirring, has gotten itself a fair amount of excited attention with its Amanda Knox movie. Knox's legal team and other believers in her innocence have bitterly complained that a docudrama like this throws a monkey wrench into Knox's efforts to have her murder conviction overturned on appeal, and the film's star, Hayden Panetierre, having been criticized for not having met with the woman she plays, has been moved to explain publicly that she felt that Knox must have surely preferred to spend the precious time allowed her for visitors every week with her family. There was even an ABC-TV news report that Knox herself had seen a trailer for the movie and became "physically ill when [she] saw the images," just like I do when I see the trailer for that movie where Roger Sterling runs the universe and has to clear his schedule to mess with Matt Damon's love life.
The images that seem to have caused the greatest distress to Knox and also to the family of the murdered Meredith Kercher and the British tabloid press are those that depict the prosecution's version of what happened to Kercher:Tthe trailer includes a nerve-rattling shot of Amanda Fernando, who plays Kercher, screaming as two men pin her to the floor, and there have been descriptions of the scene that include a shot of Panettiere looming over her prospective victim with a knife in her hand. As it happens, I didn't see either of those images in what Lifetime actually broadcast. Maybe I blinked. Or maybe the network allowed whoever assembled the trailer to juice it up with a little material that hadn't made the final cut, or maybe they got cold feet and did a little judicious editing. It's worth stressing that the "recreation" of the assault on Kercher was clearly presented as a visualization of the prosecutors' theory, a theory that the prosecutors, being a little short on clear-cut scientific evidence, were shown to have pretty much pulled out of their asses.
Not that the film is a blistering expose that set out to exonerate Knox. It seems to have been shaped so that you can assume the worst of whomever it most pleases you to regard as the villain of the piece. For a lot of viewers, that would be Panettiere's blank slate of a party girl abroad. We may not have seen her actually do it, but from the first sight of her and her boyfriend Raffaele (Paolo Romio) shiftily dealing with the unexpected arrival of the postal cops who discover the crime scene, it sure seemed likely that she could have done it, whatever exactly "it" entailed. After a few references at the beginning to Knox's academic ambitions and lust for foreign languages, the character Panettiere plays settles into being an expatriate American wild child, devoted solely to sex, drugs, and telling people that her boyfriend looked like Harry Potter. Largely affectless, she can still be seen glowering with resentment at Kercher when she feels that her friend has done her wrong; the list of grievances includes being told to clean up the damn bathroom and suspecting that her new boss is a little too impressed with Kercher's recipe for vodka Mojitos. Sheer, petty selfishness seems to have addled her senses as much as anything, and whether or not she really is an especially dumb murderer, she is definitely one bone-stupid suspect, unable to figure out that people looking to find someone to pin a murder on might get their hopes up when they notice that she and Harry Potter can't seem to stop making out long enough to pretend to grieve a little, even when they're at police headquarters.
For those of us who don't have a dog in this race—and I confess that I could barely make head or tails out of the Knox case before seeing the film, and that seeing it left me feeling that, as Michael Franti used to say, the more I see, the less I know—Lifetime's strenuously "balanced" effort feels less like a new breakthrough in sensationalistic exploitation than a throwback to TV S.O.P. of twenty or thirty years ago, when any burning issue or tabloid nightmare that hit the papers was destined to get its own movie of the week. Scarcely any of the "timely" TV-movies from the '70s through the early '90s achieved any kind of classic status, except for the camp kind. (A personal favorite of mine was the 1983 Cocaine: One Man's Seduction, starring Dennis Weaver and the young James Spader as father and son. One of them developed a raving, wild-eyed coke habit, and you would be unlikely to ever guess which one, unless the only movie you've ever seen is Touch of Evil.) But, at a time when movies seemed to want to have nothing to do with real life, they gave audiences something they could connect to and sometimes gave actors a chance to tap into fresh, contemporary problems and attitudes. But at some point in the '90s, they all but died out, thanks to the networks' discovery that they could scratch that itch more cheaply and directly with pop-doc programming like Unsolved Mysteries.
Now, Lifetime seems to be trying to bring the genre back, but on Lifetime's terms: They stepped into these waters a couple of months back with The Craigslist Killer, which the network pointedly reran just before Amanda Knox. The most interesting thing about that film was the way it shaped the material to fit with the priorities you'd expect from a Lifetime movie: It had some police-procedural stuff and some violent-crime reenactments, but the real focus was on the woman who discovers that the title monster is her husband. (It could have been called Who the Bleep Did I Marry if that title hadn't already been taken.)
The real identification figure in this film is Knox's mother, played by Marcia Gay Harden. Harden gets to play the quietly strong embodiment of selfless motherly love, hopping on a plane to Italy when her baby is arrested and sticking by her side no matter what. She's the character with the nightmare that the target viewer can relate to: Whether you think Knox actually freaked out and killed someone or is an innocent victim of a baroque legal system, you can see either outcome as the inevitable result of a young woman traipsing off overseas and neglecting her studies to get high and sleep around. (At one point, Knox is falsely informed by the prison doctor that she's HIV-positive, a twist that mainly serves to humiliate her and punish her for having been sexually active.) Harden never gets the scene that you might expect her to have, losing patience with her daughter and scolding her for having run amok, but a scene like that might have brought the film dramatically to life and messed with its serene, perfect "balance." Its real message is simple: When you call Mom to tell her that you're a suspect in a capital crime and she tells you it's time to come the hell home, you need to go the hell home.