Captive, Netflix’s new hostage-themed documentary series, is a serpentine creature. Available tomorrow (December 9), its trajectories are as unpredictable as you’d expect, determined as they are by individuals in life-or-death situations. “The Cola Kidnap,” the story of the 1991 abduction of Rio de Janeiro Coca-Cola plant manager Corinne Coffin, twists and turns as the victim suffers a stroke — and the ringleader of her kidnapping, Ronaldo Monteiro, gives her a teddy bear as a sign of sympathy. The tale defies our expectations again as her abductor reveals the secret to his success: the 10 years he spent in the military as an elite soldier. Even for a professional ransom-collector like Monteiro, the whims of fate and the idiosyncrasies of human nature virtually guarantee surprises.
Like a snake in the grass, Captive only sees what’s in front of it. That present-tense mode works pretty well with “The Cola Kidnap,” which flits between the POVs of abductor and abductee. We get a fairly good sense of who Coffin and Monteiro are, at least in relation to the kidnapping: She’s the financially cosseted but notably tough Brazil-born daughter of Americans; he’s the former wunderkind who tested out of local favela schools, but whose jealousy of affluent peers led him to violent crime. Title cards marking the passage of time (Day 1, Day 4, etc.) ensure a measured drip of information — hence the voluptuous curves in the narrative. That Monteiro talks to the camera frankly and calmly with a smile, looking materially and spiritually comfortable, is as suspenseful as the ransom negotiations, which start at $20 million and rapidly fall in value. How could he be so at ease?
The answer is heartening; Captive’s creative team obviously chose their subjects carefully. Netflix only provided two episodes for review, but the other six installments will reportedly chronicle events in six other countries, including Yemen and Chechnya, and involve Muslim extremists, militant separatists, and Somali pirates. Given how much the show relies on documentary’s most traditional techniques — talking heads, news footage, archival videos, and recreations — high production values mean that Captive looks about as great as it can with the materials it’s got.
And yet the third installment, “Lucasville,” demonstrates how the series’s focus on the here-and-now hobbles its attempt to tell a more resonant story. As much as I’m against the bloating of TV, especially on Netflix, this account of the 1993 prison riot in Lucasville, Ohio, needs a feature-length running time to provide more than the timeline offered here. (Hell, if Ryan Murphy wants to continue revisiting the past with American Crime Story, this tale of inmates taking eight prison guards hostage could more than fill a season.)
Unlike “The Cola Kidnap,” the account of the bloodbath of a riot includes interviews with the prison’s warden, multiple correctional officers, several inmates, and more. It’s hard to get a sense of any of the interviewees as people, or even archetypes. Some rioters end up on death row after the uprising, possibly wrongly — but the episode glosses over that grave injustice. And while “Lucasville” has its share of bombshells — the captors’ building bombs and a maze to throw off riot police, the conversion to Islam by one of the hostages — the effect is not unlike reading a Wikipedia entry: a train of facts with little explanation of the significance of each occurrence. The social cancers of mass incarceration and racism in the criminal justice system — both of which obviously played a part in the riot — are completely ignored. Such are the limitations of Captive’s on-the-ground storytelling: Sometimes we need an aerial view.