If all you watched during the summer of 2005 were cable news stations, you could be forgiven for thinking that the fate of the Western world hinged entirely on the lot of a missing white teenage girl from Alabama. The media saturation that followed in the wake of the disappearance of Natalee Holloway – who was last seen staggering drunkenly out of an Aruban bar in the company of three men at 1:30 in the morning on 30 May 2005 and hasn’t been heard from since – was fairly typical of sensationalistic cases involving disappeared and/or murdered young white American women; which is to say, obsessive, relentless and hyperbolic.
Such focus is fairly de rigueur of the nightly news during lulls in the news cycle, but is the bread and butter of cable news outlets, which cling to, and bleed dry, such stories with such alarming tenacity that you wonder if the stations/producers/newscasters are actually rabid. Natalee Holloway’s case had it all: a bright-eyed, blonde innocent gone missing after a week of drunken revelry; a cast of shady suspects; a botched investigation; rumors and conspiracies flying off in a million different directions; a crusading mother who would not rest until the entire island nation of Aruba was brought to trial by the UN; and a man with the unlikely name of Jug (Holloway’s step-father). It was a perfect storm, and was the news, the only news it seemed, until a more perfect storm came and blew it off the radar for good (Hurricane Katrina).
I remember being enthralled by the Holloway story then, fascinated not so much by the case itself, as by the news stations’ fascination with it. I kept tally sheets comparing the daily coverage of CNN versus MSNBC versus FOXNews. I wondered how many weeks they would keep going with Holloway as the lead story despite the quick evaporation of any actual new developments. I agonized over which big voiced, blonde news magazine anchor to choose as my guide through the carnival of nightly Holloway updates, ultimately passing over the better known Nancy Grace on CNN in favor of Rita Cosby at MSNBC. I did this forr several reasons: a) I loved the boundlessly enthusiastic Cosby’s husky, breathless voice, sounding like Mike Myers’ Linda Richman character as a three-pack-a-day smoker; b) Cosby’s show went all in, and then some, on Holloway, gambling on a nightly live update segment from Aruba, which veered between the crass and the utterly banal; and c) the cross over between Keith Olberman on Countdown and Cosby on Live and Direct was the best three minutes of unintentional comedy on TV at the time. You could never tell if Olberman was going to scold Cosby or just burst out laughing.
If all this sounds like it’s veering on being glib and maybe a little heartless, I don’t mean for it to be. Holloway’s case is obviously heartbreaking on a personal level, but as with any overexposed case, it’s hard to actually see the individual at the heart of such cases once the media starts running with them (cf. Chandra Leavy, Lacy Peterson). The intersection of sympathy and disgust is tricky to navigate, and it seems nearly impossible for those dealing in these stories to help themselves from lapsing into sensationalism and bad taste.
Which is why it’s so surprising that this made for TV movie (for Lifetime, of course, and based on the book by Holloway’s mother, Loving Natalee) is so relatively calm and levelheaded. Perhaps the passage of time has something to do with it – we are four years removed from the case, more than enough time for a more measured approach. With the loss of immediacy, and the glare of the spotlight, the true significance of the case – personal tragedy as spur for parental activism – is allowed to come to the fore.
Natalee Holloway aims at a straight forward retelling of the events leading up to the fateful night, and the investigation in the immediate aftermath. Its quick set up and send off of Natalee herself is a case of expository expediency – we know the facts, there’s no need to belabor it. The emphasis is not so much on Natalee herself, as on her mother, Beth, and her quest to uncover the truth in the faith of mounting frustration and grief.
In this case, the film has a secret weapon in TV movie vet Tracy Pollan, who brings to her portrayal of Beth Holloway Twitty a respectful, haunted gravitas. There’s something Sisyphean about her ordeal, how she seems doomed to be eternally frustrated by a blasé police force and the meddling of rich Dutch nationals. Amidst mounting contradictory evidence and conflicting stories and rumors, she charges on valiantly, trying to sort all the details out into something understandable. It’s a fight she’s doomed to lose, as the case remains unsolved to this day.
However, there is no short supply of conjecture, and the film, while never claiming to definitively solve the case, tries to slip it in by staging recreations of likely scenarios, based on the testimony of key players and suspects. Most notable is that of Joran van der Sloot, who was seen drinking with Natalee at the bar, and then seen escorting her out later, and packing her into a car driven by two of his friends. His contradictory testimonies – delivered days, and then years, after events, form the basis of the various recreations of Natalee’s last hours. Though legally the case remains seemingly eternally in doubt – was Natalee raped and murdered? (Probably) Sold into white slavery? (Another possible scenario, not so outrageous as it sounds). Is she actually just on the lam, living under an assumed name? (Um… really?) - the film doesn’t leave much room for interpretation. Van der Sloot is our man, always has been.
Natalee Holloway avoids the pitfalls of most Lifetime movies – it never veers into camp, never overplays its “young woman in peril” / ”mother’s quest for justice” card, even though that’s exactly what it is. A neat trick. Nor does it devolve into a didactic, fourth wall breaking After School Special about the perils of binge drinking, roofies, and getting into cars with strangers. Even though that’s exactly what it is, as well. Again, neat trick.
Rather, it ends up being a slight but respectful and at times touchingly mournful drama that operates both as a cautionary tale and a true crime recreation, and a tribute to a loved and missed daughter. If it suffers necessarily from a lack of closure, it still feels like the appropriate closing chapter to a story that will never get a true ending.