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'A Wilderness of Error' revisits the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case

This image from FX's "A Wilderness of Error"

This image from FX's "A Wilderness of Error" shows Colette and Jeffrey MacDonald on their wedding day.   Credit: FX

In 2012, Oscar-winning filmmaker (and Hewlett native) Errol Morris published a book called "A Wilderness of Error." It was about Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, the Patchogue native, Princeton graduate and Green Beret serving three life sentences for the murders of his wife, Colette, 26, and daughters, Kimberly, 5, and Kristen, 2, on Feb. 17, 1970 in Fayetteville, N.C.

One key premise: What if MacDonald had been railroaded by Joe McGinnis, whose 1983 bestseller "Fatal Vision," had established his guilt?

"Wilderness" was a jeremiad packed with facts, figures and fury. MacDonald, he concluded, was most likely innocent.

Now, the 5-part film "A Wilderness of Error" by another celebrated filmmaker and podcaster, Marc Smerling ("The Jinx," "Capturing the Friedmans"), arrives on TV (premiering Friday at 8 p.m. on FX).

The basic premise here: What if Morris was wrong?

Like the book, Smerling's film — and accompanying podcast, "Morally Indefensible" — are also packed with reporting, much of it original, with Morris appearing on camera, as well as Pulitzer Prize-winning former Newsday reporter Bob Keeler, who wrote about the case for this newspaper.

The outcome is remarkable, quite possibly the last word. Moreover, book and film arrive at radically different conclusions.

In separate interviews, I spoke with Smerling and Jason Blum, the executive producer of "Wilderness" and chief of Blumhouse Pictures:

Why didn't Morris do this himself?

Blum: He always thought it was just better suited for a book but he was totally happy to develop with another filmmaker.

So why did you want to go down this rabbit hole?

Smerling: Jason sent me the book [and] I was kind of like, 'wow, I could get myself into a little bit of a sharp-elbowed situation with America's most prominent documentary filmmaker but … I started feeling there was a bigger idea here — that we could take a look at where reality and storytelling intersect.

Blum: I just found the case incredible and tragic and — you know — unanswered. Errol was really interested in what Marc captured — how the media can change the narrative.

Did you approach with preconceived notions?

Smerling: I don't take sides from the books or movies I read or watch because I know that they're storytelling at some level [and] know that people are putting them together in a way that sometimes supports a bias or perspective … There's just an endless record here that needs to be consumed and that's what happens for quite a bit of time — just figuring out what this story is.

Any concern that you'd diverge from Morris?

Blum: No [because] it's a cautionary tale — always be mindful of the source and what is motivating the source and what you're seeing. It's impossible to not be subjective or impossible to be objective about almost anything.

Smerling: [Morris] said in a very gracious way, 'it doesn't matter. If you've got to do a whole re-investigation, that's what's got to be done.' … All these things are like prisms. You look through one end and you look out the other end and then you turn it a little bit and you see a whole new color.

Did you try to get MacDonald for this?

Smerling: Of course I did and so did Errol. I had reached out to his wife [and] gone down to Maryland a few times to meet with her and thought we were moving in the right direction. We made a plan to go see him [at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Md.] but he or she canceled at the last minute. The communication stopped.

What would you have learned from looking him in the eye?

Honestly, it's knowing the events and evidence, from having done all that work. You hear it more than you see it. You know where the truth and the lie start to part ways because you know what happened and you hear the subtle intonations of desperation if someone's lying to you.

Where was the specific point at which you and Morris parted company?

If there's any huge revelation in this series it's around the interviews with Helena Stoeckley's brothers. [Stoeckley, who died in 1983, was the troubled woman whom MacDonald said was one of the real murderers.] All the other stuff doesn't really deal with her as a human being. We knew we had to really sit down and think about the chronology of where she was, and what people were saying at a certain time about where she was and try to line all these things up.

One message I took away from this is that someone can take any set of facts — or blocks, if you will — and assemble those blocks in any order you like to arrive at the narrative you want.

You've got to trust the storyteller. [Yes] we need to be a little more conscious about what we're purchasing as far as storytelling is concerned but I'd like to think that I'm using all the tools in my toolbox to get at the ultimate truth. This film is showing multiple 'truths' from multiple storytellers [but] that doesn't mean the viewer can't [ultimately] make a decision for themselves.

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