Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 11, 2009)
Anniversaries often prompt new examinations of events, and that’s the root of 2009’s Manson. The docu-drama looks at the 1969 Tate/LaBianca murders and gives us a new take on Charles Manson and his followers.
As the show progresses, we learn of the composition and functioning of the “Manson Family”, primarily through Kasabian’s eyes. We also get biographical aspects of Charles Manson’s life, key members of the Family, Manson’s philosophies and his control over his subjects, their criminal enterprises, the Tate/LaBianca killings and their aftermath.
Throughout the show, we hear from a mix of sources. The show features Manson cult members Linda Kasabian and Catherine Share, chief prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, and Sharon Tate’s sister Debra.
In addition to the comments from the folks listed above, Manson includes dramatic recreations. While we get some archival material, usually the program leaps to actors as they portray the characters and situations the show discusses.
That side of things gives Manson a distinctive flavor, but it doesn’t make the show successful. It relies too much on these reenactments and I’m not sure they add anything to the experience. Indeed, they often detract from the material because they can seem rather cheesy. None of the actors ruin the piece, but none of them provide particularly good turns either. Most of the performances veer down the hammy side of the street, and they can be too goofy to succeed.
That’s especially true of Adam Wilson’s Manson. Granted, that’s a hard part, as it must be tough to depict Manson’s insanity but not make him totally over the top. Unfortunately, Wilson fully embraces “Nutbag Charlie” and doesn’t bring much balance to the program. A better actor would demonstrate the charm and charisma Manson’s devotees cite, but we don’t see that side of him here. He’s just a wild-eyed kook.
All of this is too bad, as obviously Manson tells a fascinating story. If the events depicted lacked much to make them compelling, we wouldn’t still be curious about them 40 years later, but the documentary feels like a mishmash. It has too many dramatic reenactments to provide a satisfying documentary, but it doesn’t give us enough historical narrative to provide a strong exploration of the facts.
The documentary elements definitely fare the best. On the surface, the absence of a broad array of speakers seems to be a negative, but it’s not. Via Tate, Kasabian and Share, we get folks closely involved in the events, so they offer a good first-person perspective.
Bugliosi brings a slight outsider’s viewpoint since he didn’t know any of the participants until after the murders, but he certainly boasts as good an understanding of the various facts as probably anyone alive. Not only did he prosecute the case, but also he wrote Helter Skelter, arguably the definitive book about the events. I suppose the program could’ve added additional commentators, but it’s hard to fault the ones we get or think that others would’ve contributed a whole lot more to the show.
The various speakers act as the best aspect of Manson, though I don’t think they’re enough to make it a particularly good program. The dramatic reenactments just don’t work very well, and they rob of the material of some vitality. Given that we’ve already gotten a couple of Helter Skelter adaptations, I’m not sure why the show’s producers thought the “docu-drama” approach was the way to go. It gives Manson something of a “been there, done that” feel and makes it less satisfying as a documentary.