May 27, 2009
95 Minutes
Documentary / Crime
Kurt Kuenne [Drive-In Movie Memories; Validation]

By some reports, the most powerful documentary ever viewed by human eyes. Entire theaters full of people sobbing, unable to leave the theater after it was over until composing themselves. I can’t really dispute that claim, though I wonder if the story itself is powerful or the film-making execution. Kurt Kuenne, a local guy, set out to film the story of his friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby so that his unborn son could learn about him. Allegedly, Dr. Bagby was murdered by his off-kilter (duh) substantially older than he girlfriend. The film alleges that she drove from Iowa to Pennsylvania without stopping, all the while calling him from a cell phone. For thirteen hundred miles she drove and called, but he never answered. She shows up, they meet, she shoots him with a gun she didn’t deny owning. Then she drives all the way home again without stopping where she gets on her home phone and calls the man she just killed in order to leave a message on his voicemail thereby establishing an alibi. At first she denies seeing him, then she changes her story to say that she handed him the gun and then drove away, claiming that he shot himself. Five times. In the back. Then she flies to her hometown in Nova Scotia where she announces that she’s pregnant with her murder victim’s baby.

Here’s the thing about this film. Murders happen all the time. This guy was nice enough, sure, and there’s ample footage of him acting in the films of his buddy Kurt when they were boys. And there are groups of people ready to speak to the camera about how warm he was. But what’s different about this story is that almost to a person, man, woman, old, young–when they begin speaking about him, they inevitably begin crying. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. And that’s because there’s much more to this story than we are let in on, but the interview subjects are privy to. In deference to spoilers, I won’t say what it is, but it’s revealed as if it were THE SIXTH SENSE or something.

This is where the controversy arises. This film makes Michael Moore’s work seem positively objective. This film is exactly the opposite of the Maysles Brothers or Barbara Kopple or even Errol Morris. The days of a documentarian simply turning on his or her camera and letting the story tell itself appear to be over. Kuenne has scary music and closeups of words in court documents like “murder” and he does the voiceover and he often sobs while speaking and there are flashes of red and he ridicules governmental officials and the murder suspect with language and footage and attitude. Like Moore does with Bush 43.

So what we end up with is a documentary, about a compelling subject, which is every bit as manipulative as a Ron Howard sweeping-score-telling-us-what-to-think fictional drama.

Make no mistake. I was absolutely riveted. My mouth was agape during several portions. I talked back to the screen. I cried. I yelled. I actually paused the film and walked around for 15 minutes because I didn’t want to learn any more about the story. I can’t remember a documentary making me feel that way. There are hundreds of docs which cause outrage or sadness. But this one sort of grabs the outrage and sadness and anger right out of you while you’re watching. How much of that was due to technical know-how and editing brilliance and how much of it was due to the story itself, I can’t really say.

I can say that you won’t soon forget it and as soon as its over you can argue with yourself about the film-making style that Kuenne employs in the service of his story.


DEAR ZACHARY is the subject of Cinebanter Podcast Number 74. After you’ve seen the movie, listen to the spoiler-filled review by Tassoula and I by clicking the play button right here:

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Show Description:
• 00:00 Intro
• 00:32 PUBLIC ENEMIES Discussion
• Break
• 17:39 To Sum It Up
• Break
• Break
• 31:06 To Sum It Up
• Break
• 31:41 The Last Five®
• Break
• 55:11 Listener Last Fives (Scott in Florida and Cynthia in California)
• 1:04:02 Credits and Outtake


8.2 Metacritic
8.7 IMDB

Dear Zachary @ Amazon


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Written by Michael W. Cummins