Captive — Netflix's newest addition to the wave of true-crime entertainment it helped popularize with smash hit Making A Murderer — is a harrowing series about a real-life nightmare scenario: being taken hostage and not knowing what will happen next. Released today, it's comprised of eight hour-long standalone episodes, making it both an appealing option for people whose TV-watching habits are more bite-sized than binge-watch and anyone looking to spike their stress levels. Each installment dramatically reconstructs a different hostage crisis from as close to a 360-degree perspective as possible, utilizing an impressive variety of in-depth interviews. We hear from the captives, of course, as well as their family and friends; plus, the law enforcement tasked with negotiating the situation; the media that covered the crisis (via archival news footage) — and, most fascinatingly, the captors themselves. In fact, the greatest moments of Captive are when we find ourselves not in the shoes of the victims, but the person imprisoning them. While the series is careful not to go too far in sympathizing with "the bad guys," hearing them out, in their own words, allows us some flickering glimpses at their humanity, making the story that much more illuminating. What drove them to commit such a crime? That answer remains behind fogged glass. But even asking the question suggests that we've evolved to understand that a person isn't born bad: Crime, in most cases, is part of a systemic problem. There are larger forces at play than the individual.
Captive explores those larger forces in "The Cola Kidnap," about the 1991 abduction of Coca-Cola executive Corinne Coffin in Rio de Janeiro by a local crime lord, Ronaldo Monteiro — who is respected as something of a Robin Hood figure among his fellow favela-dwellers. The first few minutes of the episode elaborate on the race- and class-based fault lines shaking Rio during the rapid rise of globalism in the '80s and '90s — when kidnapping wealthy people, in Monteiro's words, "came into fashion." Poverty and powerlessness are very real forces. Wrestling millions of dollars in cash from elites — not to mention making them vulnerable and helpless — may feel more like balancing the scales than committing a crime. Coffin remembers sensing "a pride" in Monteiro's voice "to have someone of that class under his power." But those first few minutes of contextualizing feel paltry, considering the scope of the bigger story here.
'Captive' would be a much more rewarding, memorable experience for audiences if it focused more on social and global contexts of particular crimes.
Similarly, the third episode, about the 1993 prison riot and hostage situation in Lucasville, Ohio, barely touches on the fucked-up power and race dynamics plaguing the system of mass incarceration. While individuals should be held accountable for their actions, it's clear that those ugly forces fostered a kind of morally blind anarchy that fueled the bloody riots. We do get a sense of this from the firsthand accounts of the guards and prisoners who were there — but I craved more.
Those are the documentaries I'd pay to see. But Captive only scratches the surface of the subjects that I find much more enthralling — and, at the risk of sounding uppity, intellectually stimulating. Captive would be a much more rewarding, memorable experience for audiences if it focused more on social and global contexts of particular crimes — using each hostage situation as a vivid examples of the devastating human effects of the institutional failings that drive people to desperation across the globe. Perhaps that's for another series entirely. But I can't help but feel that Captive would have had more time to explore those broader topics if it didn't waste so much valuable screen time on the totally unnecessary dramatic re-enactments. The depth and breadth of the intimate interviews alone paint a vivid picture and create a compelling narrative that's suspenseful in itself. So the splicing in of hazy, slow-motion close-ups of actors' hands and eyes begins to feel gratuitous and distracting; frankly, I'd go so far as to say it indicates a lack of confidence on the part of the filmmakers — specifically in the viewers, who are presumed to lack the imagination to envision the simplest of scenes. But it also signals a seeming lack of self-confidence in the ability to pull off Captive without a heavy hand, as though the series' producers didn't believe the rest of their work stands strongly enough on its own. When you're telling a story about what is already quite literally a life-or-death situation, that's enough. Captive is available to stream on Netflix as of Friday, December 9.