Unlike Making A Murderer or any given episode of 48 Hours, Netflix’s Amanda Knox doesn’t seek to build mystery or suspense: One of the first shots is of Knox herself, talking straight to camera, clearly not behind bars or in prison clothes. She introduces her nearly unbelievable story with a frightening binary: “Either I’m a psychopath in sheep’s clothing, or I am you.” By “you” she means any innocent person who might find themselves in prison for something they didn’t do. Amanda Knox is her story, it bears her name, and the documentary wants viewers to believe her. That’s easy to do because the evidence is clear, but it doesn’t make the story itself any less harrowing or fascinating.
Knox was a 20-year-old American who had been in Italy for school just a couple of months when she was arrested for brutally murdering her British roommate, Meredith Kercher, with help from Knox’s boyfriend of two weeks, Raffaele Sollecito. After many hours of repeating her version of events to police—she wasn’t in the shared house at all on the night of the murder—she eventually changed her story, trying to shift the blame to another acquaintance after concluding that the police were trying to pin it on her. It was a mistake that cost her years of her life. She almost immediately recanted, saying she had been “brainwashed” by a long interrogation, and that she had been physically abused by Italian police. It was, fairly clearly, a false confession along the lines of those in Making A Murderer and the West Memphis Three cases. It didn’t line up with the physical evidence, or any sense of motive. And even when the real killer—a mutual acquaintance of the victim and Knox who had a history of burglary and violence, and who admitted being in the house that night—was convicted in a separate trial, it didn’t stop the police, the public, and the press from continuing to call for Knox’s head.
There are two villains in this story beyond the actual murderer, and the film amazingly gets them talking very candidly, in interviews specifically shot for Amanda Knox: Giuliano Mignini, who prosecuted the case, and journalist Nick Pisa, who covered the story for the British sensationalist tabloid The Daily Mail. The film doesn’t need to indict them—it just gives them enough rope to hang themselves. Mignini is convinced—based on nothing more than a first impression of Knox, who doesn’t act the way he thinks a grieving young woman should—that Knox and Sollecito are guilty, and he’s willing to view the evidence to fit that hunch no matter what. One of his key pieces of “evidence” is that Kercher’s body had been covered with a blanket—something he claims only a female murderer would do. Mignini represents the scariest police power imaginable, a fiftysomething man raised in a notoriously sexist country who can’t wrap his head around the personality of an American girl who—according to her leaked diaries—was very interested in sex and was, by her own admission, a little bit strange. The leap from those benign facts to “drug-fueled sex murderer” was ridiculously short, but the prosecutor never wavers in his conviction. There are shades of Making A Murderer’s Ken Kratz here, for sure. It’s simultaneously maddening and frightening.
Pisa, as a stand-in for all sensationalist press, is only slightly less culpable in the rush to judgment that sent two innocent people to jail for four years: The Daily Mail published every sexual rumor and innuendo about Knox that it could find, regardless of their veracity or provenance. Near the end of Amanda Knox, Pisa even cheerfully says, “It’s not like I can say, ‘Hang on, let me double-check that for myself,’” about the various slut-shaming rumors that fueled the public’s perception of Knox’s guilt. The newspapers, emboldened by the prosecutor’s fantastical scenarios about the night of the murder, fed the public rage machine. There was even a Lifetime movie starring Hayden Panettiere that bought into the tabloid version. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the public—at least in Italy and England—thought Knox was a beautiful monster. But why wouldn’t they? The cops and the press told them she was, and they couldn’t both be completely mistaken. But of course they were.
It’s a massively complex case that Amanda Knox does a solid job of cramming into 90 minutes; the film probably could have stretched out to two or three times that length. The legal finagling of the various court cases is a bit too compressed to come across as stressful as it should, and the film glosses over the more sensationalistic press coverage that made the case a worldwide phenomenon. Knox complains about being hounded by paparazzi once she’s back home in Seattle, but the intensity of the media coverage at the time seems almost underrepresented. Those are small quibbles, though, for a documentary that puts such a tidy bow on a complex story. But maybe, in its role as an advocate, that’s what Amanda Knox intended to do. The case against Knox and Sollecito should have been open and shut, but hysteria and the desire for a quick arrest made them easy targets. Amanda Knox serves as a corrective—a simple, brutal look at the dangers of hype, hysteria, and rushed prosecution.