HBO Revisits Our Taconic Crash

It’s been two years since Diane Schuler, returning home from a family trip to the Catskills, drove her car the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway, killing herself and seven other people and causing the worst accident our county had seen in three-quarters of a century.

And yet, even though so much time has passed, so little is known about why Schuler acted the way that she did. With the question still burning in people’s minds, filmmaker Liz Garbus (Bobby Fischer Against the World) set out to make a documentary about the crash. The result, There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane, aired on HBO and is currently available through HBO on Demand.

Now, recently, HBO has been on a hot streak with its original movies. Works like Temple Grandin and Recount have gone on to receive critical acclaim and back up some big awards. But those were fictionalized dramatizations. They had casts with big-name stars. They dealt with issues that people care about nationally. Would There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane be able to pass the same bar, given that it’s a documentary about a local, New York tragedy?

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The answer: yes and no. It seems that some of the issues Schuler faced in her daily life really resonated with a non-local audience—though everyone’s frustrated that the documentary couldn’t dig up some easy answers to what happened that day. Here’s a sampling of what the critics had to say.

“Much of the material Ms. Garbus presents has been on the record already, most prominently in an article by Steve Fishman in New York magazine in November 2009. But she packages it well in a film that’s like a more meticulous and dignified version of one of those network television prime-time crime compendiums—a 48 Hours Mystery with more heart and brain.” —Mike Hale, the New York Times

“If you come here looking for answers to this much-discussed event (which briefly preoccupied Larry King and other members of the cable and Internet commentariat), you will leave deeply unsatisfied and possibly smoldering with disgust. If you can stomach the material, then watch. If you can’t—and I include a special caution to those who’ve lost loved ones to a drunk driver or any vehicular crash—then it’s time to change the channel.

Still, it’s hard to look away from what Garbus has attempted here. There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane is the most unforgettable and hauntingly rendered documentary to come from HBO so far this year; at the same time, it is an example of the documentary format at its most fraught and incomplete.” —Hank Stuever, The Washington Post

“The film occasionally takes on the shape of a TV magazine story, mysterious and disturbing. But it offers no resolution. Long, overhead tracking shots show the highway now, under a poignant piano track, or witnesses recall what they saw when, that the minivan was switching lanes, that Diane got out of the car at a rest stop, looking ill, or, as she headed the wrong way on the highway, ‘She didn’t even put on a brake… Her eyes didn’t even move.’” —Cynthia Fuchs,

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“There’s an understandable human impulse to fill tragic voids with reasonable answers that lead to tidy conclusions—an impulse shared by good documentary producers like Garbus. But when Garbus doesn’t find the surprising answers she’s looking for—probably because this already has been so thoroughly covered in these pages—she begins turning to dispassionate experts (such as Harold J. Bursztajn, a Harvard forensic psychiatrist), who offer their own ruminations about Schuler’s actions.

It’s here that the film stalls. There is nowhere else to go, nothing left to say, because one hard, cold fact inconveniently refuses to budge: Schuler consumed the equivalent of 10 alcoholic drinks and smoked a large quantity of pot that day. Why did she do this? Honestly, does it really matter? Watching the documentary left me feeling this tragedy will never go away.” —Verne Gay, Newsday

There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane, an intense and diligent effort to determine exactly how this could have happened, does a whole lot of digging and not much finding.

In that sense this documentary is curiously unsatisfying to everyone—including, one suspects, filmmaker Liz Garbus, as well as survivors, family, friends and those who simply read the story in the paper.” —David Hinckley, the New York Daily News

Did you watch the documentary? Do you agree with the critics? Let me know in the comments.

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Photo Credit: HBO

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