The popularization of the “re-enactment” technique of so many non-fiction films and docuseries can in large part be traced to Errol Morris, director of The Thin Blue Line and The Fog Of War, who looms over the genre like a titan. His influence on subsequent filmmakers can be felt in everything from Oscar winners like Taxi To The Dark Side to countless Investigation Discovery series. In those latter cable shows, the meditative and restrained use of recreating scenes in question usually gets replaced by a cheap and exploitative technique wherein actors replay lurid sequences of violence and sudsy emotional fireworks for maximum button-pushing impact. Somewhere in between the two applications lies Captive, a new Netflix series that can’t resist juicing up its already-compelling subject matter with the Morris-derived technique, unintentionally lessening its impact instead of bolstering it.
The format is episodic and straightforward: Each installment deals with a different instance of real life hostage-taking, in which the historical record (taken mostly from television coverage) is paired alongside first-person interviews from the subjects involved, and then the aforementioned re-enactment device is liberally applied throughout. The selected incidents are wide-ranging both temporally and geographically, though obviously all chosen from recent enough history that the concerned parties are (mostly) still alive and able to speak about the experience. The name of Executive Producer Doug Liman (Edge Of Tomorrow, The Bourne Identity) and the Netflix brand were presumably useful assets for the filmmakers, as they’re able to secure access to a few difficult-to-reach participants, including criminals still imprisoned and technically forbidden from being interviewed on camera (there’s some impressive instances of video interview illicitly recorded via internal prison communication systems). Each episode walks through the events as they unfolded, marking time from the moment of the initial hostage situation via a “_ Days” title card, keeping the viewer in the dark about the direction and outcome of each event until the end.
There’s plenty of things Captive does right to keep things engaging. Episodes are of variable length based on the material, meaning the shows are serving their subjects and not the other way around. The third episode, “Lucasville,” is the stronger of the two installments Netflix made available for review, and it’s easy to see why it was chosen to represent the series. Despite its hour-and-a-half length, the subject is so gripping one could easily imagine delving further into the story. Recounting the 1993 takeover of an entire wing of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility by its prisoners, the show follows the day-by-day accounts of the prisoners who participated in the rebellion; the guards taken hostage and held for the duration of the takeover; the authorities who tried to bring about a peaceful resolution to the standoff; and the families of those involved. There’s astounding police footage from inside and outside the walls, looking on as prisoners carry out the bodies of fellow inmates killed in the initial melee, and you hear the officers’ voices as they debate how to proceed in those fraught circumstances. The episode wisely continually refers to the outside perspective of the press and public, showing how public opinion put pressure on those in charge to make rash or hurried moves in retaliation, as well as the firsthand account of the warden, describing the psychological toll exacted on him by the ordeal. The sense of pessimism from all involved as the days progressed is palpable through the screen.
However, the series doesn’t really trust its audience to engage with the material on its own merits. The scenes of recreation, most often shots of stressful moments talking to negotiators or other slices of life from inside the facility during the occupation, become too aggressive in their efforts to make you duly engaged. There’s an early shot, during a re-enactment of the riot that ended up destroying a majority of the prison equipment, in which the sudden appearance of a hand in a window is filmed like a jump scare from a horror film. Additionally, the music and framing are deployed for maximum over-emphasis, playing up the psychological intensity of an event that needs no such goosing. In so doing, the series overplays its hand, coming across more like the pulpy basic cable docudramas to which it’s clearly intended to be superior.
A similar issue plagues the fifth installment, “The Cola Kidnap,” which addresses the 1991 abduction of Corinne Coffin, a Brazilian Coca-Cola bottling executive kidnapped and held for ransom for days on end by a team of criminals in Rio, led by Ronaldo Monteiro, who stresses the ways his military training prepped him to become a skilled abductor. (Monteiro’s interviews are cleverly filmed so it’s unclear where he’s being lensed, in prison or somewhere far away; he also delivers some good lines, such as recounting how, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, “kidnapping came into fashion.”) Much more a classic case of ransom between a gang of determined crooks and a frantic family, the back and forth between the two camps plays out in occasionally surprising ways. But again, the emphasis on the emotional drama runs on and on, as though the show is worried we’ll forget how anxious and panicked and unhappy everybody involved was unless they continually re-state it, to the sounds of tense instrumentation and slow-motion dramatic recreations. It adds an element of pandering to the series, and takes time away from potentially compelling avenues of exploration, like the cultural milieu of Rio De Janeiro at the time, which receives scant attention in the early minutes and is then abandoned.
Captive has all the elements of an engaging and informative documentary series. Producers Simon and Jonathan Chinn have an accomplished resume of excellent non-fiction films and television series under their belts (Searching For Sugar Man, Atari: Game Over, 30 For 30), so it’s unclear why they felt the need to ladle on the theatrics so heavily this time out. Still, it’s a compelling topic, and the series certainly delivers the expected drama, albeit in a heavy-handed manner, meaning those looking for a docu-diversion should find it worthy of delving into. Life and death scenarios are innately harrowing, and if Captive realizes it doesn’t need to add to the intensity of its subject matter, it’ll truly be worthy of capturing your time.