As a rule, I don’t like movie biopics. They come with the assurance “based on a true story,” and viewers get the impression that the stories they tell actually happened. Sadly, any time I have ever seen a biopic on a person I knew something about, I could see where the movie got important details badly wrong, transforming “based on a true story” into “pure fiction suggested by a true story.” What is even more distressing to me is that usually the important details were gotten badly wrong on purpose. Why? To make the story better. These embellishments often wind up making the story worse.
Thus, in the movie “Hurricane,” Rubin Carter handily defeated Joey Giardello for the middleweight championship but was robbed of the decision by racist judges. I was a fan of Rubin Carter at the time of the fight, and I was sorely disappointed when Joey Giardello beat him with such ease. The same sort of thing goes for the movie “Cinderella Man,” where Max Baer is portrayed as some sort of sadistic bully like Ivan Drago, who loved to send his opponents to the hospital or the morgue. It made for a stirring sort of a confrontation between the underdog James Braddock and the favored Baer, but it slandered the happy-go-lucky Baer, who was as kind a man as ever climbed into the ring.
Which brings me to “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile,” which would better be titled “Extremely Inaccurate, Shockingly Distorted, and Warped.” I get that they wanted to make an interesting story, but this is a situation where the truth is far more interesting that the fictive account the movie rendered up. Of course, the truth is always nuanced in shades of grey, whereas biopics like to portray things in stark black and white.
In rough chronological order, here are a few of the distortions in the movie (I voice no opinion on the depiction of what happened out West. I wasn’t there and I purposely remained as ignorant of Bundy’s Western “exploits” as possible so that I could concentrate on the case at hand without being distracted by other things):
The Florida police were not portrayed as badly as though they were Keystone Kops, but their portrayal was not an accurate reflection of the highly professional work done to bring Bundy to justice.
When Bundy was arrested in Pensacola, he did not gut punch the officer and knock him breathless to the ground. As the officer was cuffing Bundy, he spun out of the officer’s grasp and ran. When the officer caught him, Bundy resisted violently and the officer used sufficient force to subdue him, producing my favorite booking photo of Bundy.
The depiction of the service of the search warrant for Bundy’s teeth impressions was highly inaccurate. A goon squad did not rush in on Bundy and pin him down while teeth impressions were forcibly made. When the warrant was read to Bundy, he voiced opposition to it, but did not resist in the least.
Most of the courtroom scenes looked like they were written by someone whose only knowledge of court proceedings came from watching “Matlock” reruns.
Almost every lawyer depicted in the movie came across as a nincompoop. The lawyers were not nincompoops. The scene where Bundy jumped up and objected when his lawyer wouldn’t, got his objection sustained, and then his lawyer stormed out of the courtroom never happened. The fall guy who was chosen for the role of nincompoop lawyer in this sequence was “Dan Dowd,” a made-up lawyer who, so far as I know, exists only in the imaginations of the screenwriters. Apparently, they were ashamed to foist this piece of nincompoopery off on an actual lawyer who was engaged in Bundy’s defense.
The tragedy of this flight of fantasy is that anyone with even minimal knowledge of the case will identify “Dan Dowd” with Public Defender Michael Minerva, who rendered distinguished service to the people of the Second Judicial Circuit of Florida for many years, Mike was (and still is) an excellent criminal defense attorney and an honorable man. If I were in trouble with the law, I wouldn’t hesitate to retain him as my counsel.
The only nincompoop in the courtroom was Ted Bundy. He was constantly doing things to hamstring his defense team. Like when he cross-examined one of the first responding officers to the Chi Omega crime scene and had the officer describe, in Technicolor every gory detail of the scene. Or when he fired attorney Robert Haggard in the middle of the Chi Omega trial. Or when he insisted that Margaret Goode, an appellate attorney who had never tried a case to a jury, give the final argument in the Chi Omega case.
I wasn’t there when Mike Minerva talked to Ted Bundy about pleading to escape the death penalty, but I know just as surely as if I were there that it didn’t happen the way the movie portrayed it. “Dan Dowd” came breezing in and discussed the plea in front of a room full of people and tried to strongarm Bundy into taking the plea. That never happened. I’ve presented probably a thousand or more plea offers to clients, and I know as well as if I were there how Minerva presented the offer. Minerva gave the details of the offer to Bundy, discussed the evidence against him, rendered his opinion about the strength of the evidence, and recommended that Bundy take the plea. No strongarm tactics whatsoever were involved. As I used to tell my clients, “It’s no skin off my nose if you reject the plea. You’re the one facing prison, not me. At the end of the trial, I’m going home no matter what happens.”
Bundy did not reject the plea offer; we withdrew it because of his antics in court when he tried to offer the plea. He was trying to set up a post-conviction attack on his plea for ineffective assistance of counsel by berating Michael Minerva. His plan was to give the plea, go to prison for a few years and wait for the cases against him to deteriorate to the point they could never be resurrected, and then withdraw his plea and win an acquittal at trial. What he accomplished was to drive away the most talented lawyer on his defense team. Minerva sent two of his top assistants to Miami to try the case, but he stayed in Tallahassee, and in Miami Bundy boo-hoo’ed in open court about Minerva abandoning him. If I had been Minerva, it would have been all I could do to keep from slugging him.
The marriage ceremony was farcical enough in real life, but the way they portrayed it in the movie was downright stupid. In real life there was a notary public in court who signed the marriage license when Bundy pronounced them man and wife.
The “conjugal visit” in the Orange County Jail never happened. Bundy impregnated his wife with a crude form of artificial insemination in the Death Row visiting park at Florida State Prison. I will spare readers the details of how it was accomplished.
The tragedy of biopics like “Extremely Inaccurate, Shockingly Distorted, and Warped” is that people will watch the movie and think that things actually happened as portrayed in the movie. They didn’t. Something somewhat similar to the events depicted in the movie happened. The actual events were more complex, more nuanced, and cast Bundy in a far less glamorous light.