The Case Against Adnan Syed review: New HBO true crime series tries to solve murder mystery that Serial couldn’t
The Case Against Adnan Syed
Director - Amy Berg
Rating - 2.5/5
You’ll have to slog over three hours of revision before the Case Against Adnan Syed introduces any new information - and even that can’t help but feel anticlimactic. This is tragic, considering just how intense the interest around Syed’s case has been, and how instrumental it has been in ushering in a Golden Age of true crime non-fiction.
His story deserves a better telling, and to our good fortune, a superior version of this story already exists. The Serial podcast is often invoked in HBO’s four-part documentary series, which has been billed as a follow-up, but struggles to justify its existence beyond a point.
Watch the Case Against Adnan trailer here
It’s momentarily gratifying to finally see the people whose voices we’ve heard in the podcast, but this soon wears off. It’s difficult to imagine someone who isn’t at least tangentially aware of Adnan’s story checking out the series, without having already familiarised themselves with Serial first. But even if one were to ignore the podcast’s groundbreaking investigation into the case, and host Sarah Koenig’s mastery over her craft, the Case Against Adnan Syed is a rather superficial look at the story that gripped the entire world in 2014.
In 1999, the 17-year-old Pakistani American Adnan Syed - a top student, popular among his peers and with no criminal record whatsoever - was arrested for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Adnan has spent almost 20 years in prison, serving a life sentence, but has maintained his innocence. In those 20 years, several attempts have been made to exonerate Adnan, to no avail.
Serial injected fresh attention to the case, which attracted passionate lawyers on both sides to litigate the matter. I will resist discussing the most recent developments in the case here, because then there would be no reason to watch the series at all, but details are easily available online in case you’re in the mood to read about it.
The Case Against Adnan Syed is directed by the acclaimed documentary filmmaker Amy Berg, who has helmed several emotionally stirring films in the past. She has often tackled stories where a great injustice has been committed against common people - The Academy Award nominated Deliver Us From Evil explored child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, while the unreleased An Open Secret investigated similar crimes in Hollywood, years before the #MeToo movement. But the one film from Berg’s oeuvre with which the Case Against Adnan Syed has the most in common has to be West of Memphis.
Like the Case Against Adnan Syed, that film was essentially a condensed retelling of a particularly excruciating story of injustice - once again a wrongful conviction - that had already received a seminal telling. These films are almost like those YouTube cram videos, which assure the viewer that they needn’t sit through days of Game of Thrones, and would be much better off watching their 10-minute recaps instead.
There is a heavy human toll cases such as this leave behind. The always eloquent Adnan at one point likens getting a retrial to being told a cancer patient has been approved for chemotherapy - “But chemotherapy ravages the body.” He says that the fight was strong in him in the early years. You could sense it in his voice even in Serial. But now, he says - he never speaks on camera, mind - he just wants to get out of jail, even if it means pleading guilty and taking a plea deal.
The West Memphis Three - subjects of Berg’s West of Memphis - and Michael Peterson, whose trial for allegedly murdering of his wife was shown in Netflix’s The Staircase, all took Alford pleas - which is essentially an admission of guilt (on paper), but allows the defendant to maintain their innocence as well.
The thing about both those stories is that they’ve arrived at a conclusion. Adnan’s story, unfortunately, doesn’t appear to have an end in sight. All of them, however, are united by an unabashed bias in the narrative. I wonder if it is possible to do without it. Making a Murderer is certainly the most subtle of the lot, with meticulous reliance on hard facts, but the Case Against Adnan is undone by the complete absence of any voice from the other side - no one from the prosecution is involved, important witnesses who testified against Adnan were interviewed off camera, and there is a shocking ignorance of the victims’ family, who, by the way, are still convinced of Adnan’s guilt.
But all of this rests on the assumption that you’re on board with his innocence. While Koenig made the journalistically admirable choice to avoid passing opinion in Serial, Berg is very obviously on his side. I’d assume she’ll make a follow-up to the follow-up as and when there are further developments, because Adnan’s beard may be thick, but so is his resolve.