Don’t watch the Netflix documentary series Captive to learn what you could do to avoid the situations its subjects find themselves in. The only agenda Captive has is to tell as much of the story it can, with testimony from as many sides as possible and some pretty good reenactments. If there is an overarching theme, it is that of power, and how those without it try to seize it for themselves by attacking those who do have it. Sometimes that means prison inmates starting a riot and holding guards hostage. Or Palestinians taking refuge in the Church of the Nativity when the Israeli military invades Bethlehem. Or kidnapping a Coca-Cola executive in Brazil, American missionaries in the Philippines, British aid workers in Chechnya, South Africans in Yemen, peace activists in Baghdad, or British citizens by Somali pirates.
In each of these situations, both kidnappers and negotiators try to gain the upper hand, most often by negotiating ransom amounts. The hostages themselves often develop complex relationships with their captors without dipping into stereotypical Stockholm Syndrome territory. They are after all dependent on those who are holding them prisoner, not only for basic needs, but in getting out alive. Families also fight and plead for their the lives of their kin, and the military and the media help or hinder as the situation fluctuates.
It’s very emotional viewing, but there’s no sense of righteousness usually found in such viewing. Netflix isn’t interested in creating villains, even when they’re clearly present. They merely try to get testimonials from everyone involved, and allow their words and actions to speak for themselves. How does one actively plot to kidnap, and in some cases murder, another human being? And what is it like for the prisoners to be held for months at a time, isolated from family, friends, and the outside world? Captive tries to get to the heart of those questions, but avoid binge-watching. It’ll just lead you to depressing places.
But the real question on everyone’s mind is where Captive holds up to another Netflix docuseries, Making a Murderer. Does it? Not at all, but then few shows can, and Captive starts at a disadvantage. Making a Murderer had an overarching story and characters which made it virtually impossible for viewers not to get deeply invested. But Captive focuses on different people, places, and points in time during each of its eight episodes, all of which feature different directors and a firm resolution. It’s not only difficult, it’s impossible for people to get as invested as they were with Making. Maybe that’s why Netflix isn’t able to resist sensationalizing the content. Granted, it’s not too over-the-top, but it does overreach nevertheless. And as the series goes on, it’s hard to see why this is even being produced by the online service. Each episode is supposed to feel like a film, but it feels more like a news documentary that could easily appear on network TV.
There’s also another overarching theme that begs for exploration. Save for the Palestinians, each episode mostly consists of well-off white people being held by hostile groups which mostly consist of minorities, with even the Brazilian Coca-Cola executive being blonde and her captor being dark-skinned. Her captor mentions how his skin color made a huge difference in his life and opportunities, but that’s virtually all the discussion there is on race and the complex ways it can play out in everyday life, which seems ridiculous when that issue looms so large. Captive briefly mentions that people who live in the countries under discussion are also being kidnapped, but virtually none are shown. What exactly happens when a Somalian, a Yemeni, a Filipino, or a Chechen is held captive by a terrorist group? What kind of coverage does that get, if any? What are the differences in demands?
While Captive doesn’t seem to feel the need to answer these questions, it does answer many more, and the testimonials themselves are gripping, as they range from touching to frightening. In many cases, watching this series is to be a witness to the innocence of the well-meaning brushing up against the trauma of the brutalized, and it’s not pretty. Then again, it’s even less so when both sides come from places of violence, such as the standoff in Bethlehem between the Palestinians and the Israeli military, or the prison riot in Ohio. Brace yourself for even more death and destruction. Captive does a good job of showing us tragedies we often hear about yet remain unfamiliar, but if it had just a little more faith in its audience, it could have featured far more valuable viewing.