Monday, January 15, 2018

I Am Elizabeth Smart (Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Lifetime did a rerun of a film they “premiered” last November, I Am Elizabeth Smart, based on the June 5, 2002 kidnapping of nice 15-year-old Mormon girl Elizabeth Smart from her Salt Lake City home by Brian David Mitchell, self-styled Mormon prophet who called himself “Emmanuel” and told Smart that God had told him to take her as his second “wife.” He already had a first wife, Wanda Ileen Barzee, who had left a job as a music teacher in Boston that she loved to marry and follow him, and the literature on the case disagrees as to whether she was a co-conspirator or a victim or maybe some of both. Smart was held captive by Mitchell and Barzee for nine months, during which time they mostly lived in the mountains around Utah until Mitchell decided in late November 2002 to move them to San Diego for the winter (he may have been crazy but he wasn’t stupid!), during which time he left Smart and Barzee in the mountains (which don’t look like San Diego scenery — I think the filmmakers, director Sarah Walker and writer Victoria “Tory” Walker — this is Sarah’s only credit on and Tory’s only other credit is for the silly TV series Psych — did all their location work in Utah) for a week with only two days’ worth of food. When he came back he told them he’d been in prison and that’s why he hadn’t come back sooner. I’ll give the Walkers ( doesn’t have bios on either of them, so I don’t know whether or not they’re related to each other) credit for a lot of things, including an appropriately creepy atmosphere and a good feel for the sense of disorientation Elizabeth Smart must have felt to be yanked away from her home and family and forced to live with a man who raped her every night (and sometimes during the day as well), terrorized her, kept her literally locked up via metal-and-plastic ropes and padlocks he used to tie her to trees, and continually threatened that he had a group of several hundred followers (he didn’t) who would kill all her relatives if she tried to escape.

The Elizabeth Smart story was also the subject of a CBS-TV movie aired in November 2003, just months after she was finally rescued by cops in Utah — courtesy of Smart herself, who when Mitchell decided San Diego had got too “hot” for him managed, by invoking the tenets of what Tory Walker’s script called Mitchell’s “made-up religion,” to convince him to go back to Utah instead of moving to the East Coast. The earlier production was called The Elizabeth Smart Story and the principal consultants and sources were her parents, Ed and Lois Smart. When I saw it back then I noted, “Where the film most totally disappointed was in its utter refusal to consider issues of faith and their impact on the case — and I suspect the reason [writer] Nancey Silvers dodged this part of the story in her script was because (as they made it clear their recent interview on Larry King Live) the Smarts remain utterly faithful, dyed-in-the-wool Mormons who credit their God with their daughter’s survival from her nine-month ordeal[1] and utterly refuse to consider any suggestion that Elizabeth Smart’s abduction had anything to do with the dark side of Mormonism and its history.” That was true of I Am Elizabeth Smart as well, which took on a really didactic air because this time the filmmakers’ principal source was Elizabeth Smart herself, who is listed as one of the film’s five producers and who also appears in it doing a voice-over narration and appearing as herself in front of a blank screen in scenes that bring the action to a dead stop while she explains what was happening to her and how she felt at that point of her story. These insertions have at least one good aspect: they show how well Alana Boden was cast as Elizabeth Smart in the film’s dramatic portions — the two women look fully credible as the same person as different ages — but they also make the film seem awfully preachy. It sometimes comes across as if Elizabeth Smart participated in this production because she wanted to settle scores with various people who’ve written about her ordeal, in particular ones who’ve accused her of having the “Stockholm syndrome” and genuinely falling in love with Mitchell. In one of the inserts she denies point-blank that she ever had the “Stockholm syndrome” and never felt anything towards Mitchell besides loathing and fear. 

A quite interesting movie could have been made about Elizabeth Smart’s readjustment to normal life after her rescue; according to the Wikipedia page on her she returned to the mainstream Mormon church and also became an activist for laws to protect children from similar abductions and abuse, including lobbying Congress to pass the bill creating the AMBER Alert system. She also went on a Mormon mission to Paris in 2009, returning only to testify against Brian David Mitchell at his trial (he got two life sentences and Wanda Barzee got 15 years — actually seven since the time she’d already served was counted — because she cut a plea deal and turned state’s evidence against him), and while there she met a Scottish Mormon named Matthew Gilmour. They married in 2012 and have two children, a daughter in 2015 and a son in 2017. Just how she got into a normal life after her ordeal, and especially a normal sex life after being repeatedly raped by a crazy kidnapper while still in her teens, might have made for a more interesting movie than this odd piece of score-settling on Smart’s part, in which over and over again she tells us that no one can possibly understand the experience she went through unless it’s actually happened to them. I Am Elizabeth Smart was shown with a lot of interstital segments not only featuring Elizabeth Smart herself but also Alana Boden and the actors who played the other two principals, Skeet Ulrich as Mitchell (who, as he did in The Elizabeth Smart Story as well, comes off as a combination of Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden — one wonders in both films why, in the post-9/11 atmosphere, he could get away with traveling in a long robe with two veiled women without the three of them being arrested as Muslim terrorists) — he complained, much the way Heath Ledger did when he was filming The Dark Knight and playing the Joker, that it was the first time in his career he’d had to enact someone without any good qualities at all — and Deirdre Lovejoy as Barzee. I felt sorry for her because Barzee was easily the most complicated character in the story — when I watched The Elizabeth Smart Story I called her “the mother of all co-dependents” and a less didactically oriented script, with less involvement from the subject, might have actually given Lovejoy more to work with in creating a character and getting us to feel sorry for the woman while at the same time understanding that what she did was wrong. As it is, the only times Lovejoy got to shine were the rare instances in which Tory Walker depicted her arguing with Mitchell and questioning whether a man into drinking and porn was really the Second Coming of Christ. 

There are some nice ironies in I Am Elizabeth Smart, including a scene relatively early on in her captivity in which Mitchell forces Smart to drink wine — even though she’s not only just 15 years old but had taken the usual Mormon pledge never to consume alcohol — and of course she hates it but later realizes that drinking at least makes her captive existence slightly less miserable. For the most part, though, this is a pretty white-bread treatment of a story that potentially offers a lot more complexity than we’ve been allowed to see in depictions controlled either by Elizabeth Smart’s parents or by the woman herself. And what still amazes me about the story — as it did back when it was happening — is that nothing in Elizabeth Smart’s ordeal caused either her or her family to have so much as one jot of doubt about their Mormon faith even though Brian David Mitchell’s religion wasn’t as “made-up” as Smart describes it in her narration: it was a dark extrapolation of some of the nastier sides of Mormonism as practiced, especially in the early days before the church officially gave up polygamy in 1890 because the U.S. government was about to send in an army and occupy Utah if they hadn’t. One could argue that the beliefs of Mitchell, or of Rulon and Warren Jeffs, or any number of other oddball self-styled “Fundamentalist Mormon” groups (including some, like Ervil LeBaron’s cult, the one Pete Earley described in his book Prophet of Death and another Jon Krakauer depicted in Under the Banner of Heaven, whose leaders descended to murder) are just as legitimate derivations of the teachings of Joseph Smith, Jr. than the white-bread mainstream Mormon Church headquartered in Salt Lake City. Maybe it’s my own questioning nature and my agnosticism that leads me to be skeptical of any religion’s claim to divine authority — I’ve long believed that if there is a God, His (or Her) nature is so far beyond our ability to comprehend that no one religion is likely to know more about it than any other — but I suspect I not only wonder why Elizabeth Smart’s experience didn’t lead her or her family to question the basic tenets of Mormonism but wish it had made them question them!

[1] — This is one of the big things about religious people that drives us atheists crazy: their insistence on crediting God with all the good things that happen in their lives and simultaneous refusal to blame him or even hold him responsible for the bad things that happen to them.