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Timely, shocking and relentlessly compelling, documentary Who Took Johnny recounts the strange story surrounding the disappearance of paperboy Johnny Gosch, one of the original milk carton kids, a 33-year-old cold case. Directed by David Beilinson, Suki Hawley, and Michael Galinsky (whose previous features include Battle for Brooklyn and Horns and Halos), the film operates satisfyingly as a true-crime mystery that maybe reveals whodunit, but also prompts reflection on how social attitudes towards child abduction, pedophilia, and the changing relationship between crime victims and the media. Although it didn’t generate the attention it deserved after its Slamdance premiere in 2014, the doc has been quietly racking up air miles at film festivals and will be released unrated in select theaters in Iowa, starting on April 24.
The bare facts of the initial case are relatively straightforward: early in the morning on Sept. 5, 1982 in West Des Moines, Iowa, paperboy Johnny Gosch, then 12 years old, was seen talking to an unknown man in a car while delivering papers, while another stranger was spotted on foot nearby. After the car was heard peeling away at speed, Johnny was gone. The local police refused to treat his disappearance as a kidnapping since there were no demands, nor would they even recognize Johnny as officially missing until 72 hours passed. His parents, John and Noreen Gosch, were quick to grab the local media’s attention. Later on, when the police failed to pursue leads they were vocal in their outrage, particularly Noreen. When another paperboy, Eugene Martin, went missing two years later under very similar circumstances, a local dairy put both their pictures on milk cartons to raise awareness, starting a national trend.
Over the years, clues trickled in and a plausible explanation as to who took Johnny started to emerge, a theory involving human trafficking, pedophile rings, and suspects in high places backed up by witness reports and ambiguous evidence. Testimony from one man, Paul Bonacci, who claims he was involved in the abduction, led back to the still very controversial scandal around the Franklin credit union in Omaha, Nebraska, a case that involved both embezzlement and unproven accusations of systematic child sexual abuse and trafficking. That connection may or may not explain the astonishing resistance on the part of the local police and the FBI to pursue the case. The last third unveils an even more shocking twist, albeit one that will be known to local followers of the case and avid viewers of Sally Jesse Raphael.
Suffice it to say that the authorities have never found Johnny, but the film’s story ripples out far beyond the confines of his particular case. For a start, Johnny’s disappearance was one of the first to capture the national imagination, thanks in part perhaps to the milk cartons, and while child abductions were not unprecedented or unreported before, not long after he vanished a new sense of fear, amplified by more abundant media exposure, permanently changed the routines of family life in America, if not round the world.
Noreen, interviewed extensively, ended up becoming a campaigner on the behalf of families of missing children, and is seen here giving advice and support to the parents of a missing girl who, tragically, is later found dead. She and her supporters successfully campaigned to pass a law in Iowa that compels police to investigate missing children cases immediately instead of waiting 72 hours which is now standard practice nationwide, so at least one good thing came out of the family’s loss.
The filmmakers marshal the material efficiently and use on screen graphics to assist clarity, but inevitably it’s a story that persistently prompts many more questions than a feature length can answer. Viewers with a taste for true-crime drama and plausible conspiracy theories are likely to come away wanting more, making the film a good candidate for a spin-off series. Others may cherish the ambiguity here, the way like Capturing the Friedmans it allows room for debate, especially when it’s revealed that some interviewees have not been one hundred per cent forthcoming about the secrets they’ve kept. And yet despite the potentially lurid nature of the material, the film is never exploitative and a sense of compassion and respect, one untarnished by sentimentality, for the victims and their families shines through throughout.
Production companies: A Rumur Inc. production
With: Noreen Gosch, John Gosch, Paul Bonacci, Paul Sparrow, John DeCamp
Directors: David Beilinson, Suki Hawley, Michael Galinsky
Producer: David Beilinson
Executive producers: Kathleen Monahan, Adam Galinsky
Cinematographer: Michael Galinsky
Editor: Suki Hawley
Music: David Reid, Tristeza, Philip Quinaz
No rating, 81 minutes
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