The Chandra Levy Murder Mystery Gets Televised

By Rend Smith - City Desk
|  Tuesday, May 3, 2011  |  Updated 10:22 AM EDT
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The TLC docu-drama Who Killed Chandra Levy premiered on the cable channel Sunday. The film reconstructs the events surrounding the 24-year-old intern's disappearance and murder in May 2001.

It's based on the book Finding Chandra: A True Washington Murder Mystery, by hard-nosed Washington Post reporters Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz. Both authors provide commentary throughout.

Though it opens with a reenactment of the search for Chandra's remains in Rock Creek Park (Levy disappeared after taking a run there), the film doesn't get much into the nitty-gritty of Levy's death. Instead, it approaches the tragedy through a more intimate lens, highlighting her personal life.

That has the advantage of allowing the viewer to get a better idea of who she was: a bubbly, upper-class girl from Modesto, Calif., with designs on joining the FBI. Interviews with Levy's aunt Linda Katz, coworker Sven Jones, and friend Jennifer Baker help give Levy an identity beyond that of "murder victim."

But the disadvantage of the approach is where it ultimately has to end up: With former Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., the lawmaker Levy was having an affair with when she died. "What makes the Chandra Levy case interesting is that it had to do with a congressmen," Horwitz tells the camera.

A one-time suspect in Levy's murder, Condit's career was ruined during the story. At times, the married Condit, who served in Congress from 1989 to 2003, comes off like a guy who fell for  Levy's "naive" charms; at other times, he seems like a sleaze using his office to get laid.

Despite an '80s-style montage depicting the evolution of their relationship, it's never really clear which Condit we're supposed to believe in. Either way, though the program and the 13-part Washington Post series in 2008 that Higham and Horwitz's book is based on exonerate Condit, you don't end up feeling much for the guy.

At the conclusion of the film, the responsibility for Levy's murder falls  to her convicted killer, Ingmar Guandique, who was sentenced to 60 years in prison in February. It's a dramatic  conclusion to the narrative.

Yet anyone who's familiar with Guandique's court case knows that his conviction was, at the least, complicated. Prosecutors never came up with any strong pieces of evidence against him and had to rely on jailhouse snitches to make their case.

Guandique's lawyers are appealing the conviction. It would have been much better to dive into the specifics of the case—even if that would have made for a looser ending. "A lot of people think it's not a clean verdict," says Higham toward the end of the film. Exploring that aspect of the story could have deepened the movie, instead of leaving viewers with soft-focus made-for-TV fare.

The Chandra Levy Murder Mystery Gets Televised was originally published by Washington City Paper on May 2, 2011.

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