I sometimes ask myself, “Why is the New York Times allowed to exist?” And I don’t mean: “Why doesn’t the government ban the paper?” because that’s not how I roll. But why is it that this roiling cesspool of lies continues to be supported after decades of outright lies, propaganda and just plain bad reporting. This is the paper that gave us Walter Duranty, for crying out loud. This is the paper that constantly warns of the dire threat of weather, whether warming or cooling, as this great roundup from American Thinker shows. (Notice how many other “respectable” journalistic institutions get in on the act that also still exist.)
It was a “fact” of the world that I grew up in that Americans were apathetic, unhelpful and cowardly, and this concept was constantly reinforced with the story of Kitty Genovese, a woman who was raped and murdered in front of 38 eyewitnesses, all of whom did nothing as she died alone in the street. This story was as well-known as it was bullshit, a fact baldly confessed to in the new documentary The Witness, by Ms. Genovese’s younger brother, who himself believed the story (and who changed his life as a result). Somebody asked me “What’s in it for them? Why lie about this?” Because they got to dictate the narrative for decades about how horrible Americans were, and that is the mission. (Americans/freedom/capitalism bad, Russians/authority/communism good.)
We are treated to an interview with the mastermind behind the scheme, who proudly confesses to the lie because it changed the world. (In case you were wondering why journalists lie all the time; they see it as their job.) We get to see Mike Wallace, who made hay on Genovese’s corpse, with his stupid, silly grin, saying “Well, it was the Times! Of course no one checked up on it!” Social science dissertations were written with this story as its centerpiece. It’s a journalist’s dream come true.
The project seems to have begun 10 years ago, and details the efforts of William Genovese to find out the truth of what happened to his beloved sister. The impetus for the story came from, ironically, the New York Times which essentially rebutted its own story 35 years after the fact. And in this film, he quickly debunks the story by interviewing all the people in the neighborhood who are still living, most of whom (at best) heard a scream and saw nothing. (But who were so disgusted they never tried to correct the record. After all, when it’s the media lying about you, where do you go? Especially in 1964!) And so an entire community is libeled.
He doesn’t connect these dots, but at least two witnesses called the cops, even though the cops had no record of this. I think it’s pretty clear that the police either decided “those people” (Italians, I guess?) were just “doing them”, or that the police sent to investigate blew it off. Either way, at least one person who called was told they were on their way. They never arrived.
If that were all this was about, it would be a passable documentary but, in fact, this is just the beginning of the film. The rest of the film is about William, Kitty and (to a lesser extent) the murderer. This raises the proceedings to much higher levels. First we see William, who signed up for Vietnam because he wasn’t going to be like those bystanders who watched his sister get murdered, come to grips with how that affected his life. Then we see him discovering his sister, whom he only knew by the limited way she presented herself to her family. He interviews old friends and lovers and comes away with a different picture than he started with.
Finally, he tries to get an interview with her murderer. This request is rejected. The murderer feels exploited, and that if not for all the press, he’d have gotten out by now, apparently overlooking his escape a few years after his capture where he raped and killed another woman and took hostages. Instead, we get an interview with his son, who is now a preacher. He also was greatly affected by the events of that night, and he’s completely nuts about the subject. He’s been carrying around this notion that these Genoveses were related to the Genovese crime family, and Kitty was, essentially, a hit. He’s completely agnostic to his father’s other numerous crimes and variety of conflicting confessions/alibis/narratives.
It’s a fairly morose and somewhat morbid topic, but first-time director James Solomon keeps the proceedings tight and personal, without being lurid.
On the three-point scale:
- Subject matter: Obviously important. Like I said, this was the narrative that permeated life in the ’70s. That it was all a lie matters. A lot. Also, the examination of how crimes can affect people long after the spotlight turns off also matters a lot.
- Presentation: Good. The camera stays with William most of the time as it is, in a very real way, his story. He did the hard work of tracking people down 40-50 years later.
- Bias: It was more neutral than I would’ve been, at least at the macro level. On the micro level, we naturally grow to sympathize with William, but this isn’t really a story with “two sides”. A murder was committed, people were affected.
We had to travel to Santa Monica to see it late at night and we had no regrets.