BOSTON STRANGLER: 3 ½ STARS. “not exploitive in its retelling of the story.”
Disney+ wades into the true crime pool with a retelling of one of the most notorious serial killers of the 1960s.
From June 14, 1962 to January 4, 1964, thirteen single women, between the ages of 19 and 85, were sexually assaulted in their apartments before being strangled with articles of clothing.
Dubbed the “Silk Stocking Murders,” the case left police scrambling until reporters Loretta McLaughlin (Kiera Knightly) and Jean Cole (Carrie Coon) connected the murders and dubbed the killer the Boston Strangler. “The city is, for some, glamorous, stimulating, prosperous,” says a radio reporter. “Only recently has it become dangerous.”
When we first meet McLaughlin she is an ambitious reporter for the Record-American newspaper stuck on the lifestyle desk. Her pitches for hard news stories, including one on three elderly victims of a mysterious killer, are brushed aside.
“I don’t see the interest,” says editor Jack MacLaine (Chris Cooper). “These are nobodies.”
When McLaughlin offers to work on the story in her spare time, MacLaine relents, but adds, “You’re still on the lifestyle desk.”
As the mysterious murderer continues to strike, McLaughlin recruits Cole, one of the few female reporters not working on the lifestyle desk, to expand the investigation. Together they fight against the blue wall of police silence, the sexism of the newsroom and the very real threat of violence at the hand of the man they are helping to expose.
“Boston Strangler” is a period piece that works on a couple of levels. It is, first and foremost, a journalism procedural along the lines of “She Said” or “Spotlight,” following the reporters and their investigation.
Unlike “The Boston Strangler,” the 1968 Tony Curtis big screen version of the story, which focused on the efforts of the police, this is a story of finding the story. McLaughlin and Cole methodically build the case that these murders are connected, and that they are likely the work of one person. Despite very real threats to their safety as they hone in on one suspect, they are driven by the door knocking, boots-on-the-ground passion for the work.
Just as important is the portrait of workplace culture it paints in regards to women in the newsroom. The era’s rampant sexism, inside the newsroom and out, suggested the two women not only lacked the skills to cover the story but that they were emotionally unequipped to be involved with the case. The real-life McLaughlin and Cole were pioneers at a time when most women in newsrooms were relegated to soft news, advice columns or fetching coffee for their editors.
In fine performances, Knightly and Coon both embody the tenacity it took to smash the glass ceiling and break the Boston Strangler story. McLaughlin kicks through the gender norms of the 1960s, shaping the future she wants for herself, professionally and personally. Coon, playing a character who had worked in newsrooms since the age of 18, is spirited and funny with a razor-sharp wit.
Although there are several upsetting scenes and descriptions of the victims, the movie wisely put its focus on McLaughlin and Cole, rather than the grisly details of the crimes. Unlike the awkwardly titled “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” “Boston Strangler” doesn’t feel exploitive in its retelling of the sensational story.
Given the popularity of true crime, the murder aspect of “Boston Strangler” is the hook, but the story is deepened by its portrait of the importance of journalism to uncover the truth, and the intrepid reporters who do the work, despite the consequences.