The D.C. Sniper's Wife: Barbara Kopple Finds Her Inner Cable-News Muse
I’m not sure what to make of the Barbara Kopple film The D.C. Sniper’s Wife, which debuted on TruTV last weekend. It seems to be a strange hybrid of interview/testimonial, overedited crime rehash and evocative profile of a serial killer. As a poised Mildred Muhammad calmly recounts point by point the transformation of her husband, John Allen Muhammad, from enthusiastic military man (albeit one really into demolitions work) to recessive Gulf War vet and finally abusive kidnapper of their children and plotter of her murder, Kopple threads in police-driven narrative of his killings — 10 people shot over 23 days in the D.C. area — with all the ominous music cues, flash cuts and sensationalistic style tweaks that by this point in the history of cable crime-doc programming could be engineered by any couch potato engorged on a steady diet of these shows. Kopple is as accomplished a documentarian as they come — from her searing, Oscar-winning labor grievance films Harlan County, USA and American Dream to the fleet-of-foot show-biz follow-alongs Wild Man’s Blues (about Woody Allen) and Shut Up and Sing (about the Dixie Chicks) — so there’s something disconcertingly chameleonlike about her willingness to fall in line with a house style of murder-story TV. That’s not to say The D.C. Sniper’s Wife doesn’t do a dirty job well, bringing to life a terrifying time in the lives of ordinary citizens at the same time it reminds us that there are almost always people in the pre-headline version of a maniac’s life who know the most what was lost when things went south. It’s just unfortunate that in telling this story, Kopple felt the need to be true to true crime instead of to her gifts as a uniquely probing documentary filmmaker.
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