As if the story of murdered Washington intern Chandra Levy were not tragic enough — her disappearance on the morning of May 1, 2001, led to the much-publicized revelation that she was having an affair with then-Rep. Gary Condit (D-Ceres), who quickly became a suspect — now there is a perfectly dreadful "docu-movie" about it all.
Attempting to be a credible analysis of a case derailed by inner-Beltway scandal and shoddy police work — in the end, it turned out Levy was attacked and killed by a homicidal itinerant as she ran in a local park — "Who Killed Chandra Levy?," which premieres Sunday on TLC, uses as its narrative spine the work of Washington Post reporters Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz. A Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative team, the two began re-examining the still-unsolved murder in 2007 after the 9/11 attacks and other news events had pushed it from the headlines.
What they found led to the arrest and conviction of Ingmar Guandique, already convicted of assaulting women in Rock Creek Park, where Levy's body was found a year after her disappearance. Their 13-part series in the Post, and their subsequent book, "Finding Chandra: A True Washington Murder Mystery," chronicled how early mistakes made by the D.C. police department clouded an investigation that quickly became sensationalized and obsessed with Condit and his affair with Levy.
Unfortunately, "Who Killed Chandra Levy?" makes precisely the same mistake. Although both Higham and Horwitz provide most of the expository interviews, this is not the story of how dogged reporting or renewed police work cleared up a nationally known mystery. Much too much of the movie is spent depicting the affair, and in a poorly acted, soap operatic way to boot. Clips of the Levys' anguish in the days and months following their daughter's disappearance are agonizing to watch. Linda Katz, Levy's aunt, provides a few moments of real insight — she was the one who told the police about Condit — but overall the film is far too concerned with dramatizing private family moments. Although Condit is cleared from suspicion of murder, these scenes manage to imply that he is at least partially to blame for Levy's death.
By the time the film gets to the reopening of the investigation, there is very little time left, forcing Higham and Horwitz to blow through any meaningful explanation of how they and police figured out what had really happened and what went wrong. Both reporters are on camera frequently serving as semi-narrators, so some context is provided, but neither received any meaningful direction, which is a shame. Horwitz, a three-time Pulitzer winner (who was recently put on leave for two instances of plagiarism), suffers particularly; her smiling and energetic explanation of events is at terrible odds with the ominous unfolding of the story, making her appear callous and at times ghoulish when she is clearly neither of those things.
Reporters are not actors, true crime can often become pulp and sex always sells, but when the story revolves around a young woman's senseless murder and the sensationalized reaction to it, more care than this must be taken.