The two-part miniseries Catching Milat follows a prick of a character. And I don’t mean convicted serial killer Ivan Milat. Peter Andrikidis’ drama, which just concluded on Channel 7, looks at the infamous backpacker murders predominantly from the side of the investigators and the police, most significantly that of Detective Paul Gordon (Richard Cawthorne) who ticks off just about every cliché of the rogue cop trope that you could possibly imagine. The world is against him! Why won’t anybody listen to him! He’s just an underling, but he knows the truth! Who cares about procedure because he’s going to do what he wants! He’s going to passive aggressively talk to the press! He’s going to interview suspects without authorisation! Why won’t people who have much more experience just listen to him?
This antagonistic approach to the character was disappointing and detrimental to the drama at hand. Especially so given how good Catching Milat had been in its first half (aired last week) without as much focus on Gordon and instead more of a panarama of the entire backpacker murder story as it unfolded. Full of dread and toxic frustration at the discovery of murdered bodies in a national forest, utilising real television news footage as well as top notch performances to tell a movie TV-friendly version of horrific true Australian crime that wasn’t as grotesquely disturbing as Snowtown or Wolf Creek, but which got a remarkable amount of palpable tension from the fact that its gruesome story was real and was being told with thorough conviction. The second half, however, felt like a collection of police procedural stereotypes piled on top of one another that all focused on this one character that, by his own admission in part one, wasn’t doing anything other than bad-mouthing his fellow officers. There’s only so many times one can see a character say he’s going to do the exact opposite of what his superior asked him to do before it becomes too hard to believe. In one scene, the character is even seen as getting angry as his superiors for suggesting he didn’t do a thorough enough job on a task so he flies off the handle only to admit in the next scene that they were right and that he passed over vital information. Was the audience meant to be on side with this detective? It failed, if we were.
Given this is a true story, and a very well-documented one at that, there’s probably more than an ounce of truth to this character’s portrayal, but I’m more inclined to believe that those real elements are his egomania rather than any belief in the greater truth. Dalton Dartmouth’s screenplay has constructed the story of the investigation behind Milat and his capture in such a way that it feels manipulated. Altered to adhere to a more traditional dramatic narrative about a fair dinkum cop who’s goes up against the man for the greater good. It’s not surprising to learn that the former detective, now a taxi driver in Brisbane, Paul Gordon was a consultant on the telefeature and that many former and still-serving members of the police force, as well as the NSW senior crown prosecutor who took Ivan Milat to trial where he was convicted and sentenced to seven consecutive life sentences, have said that the production isn’t telling the truth when it suggests the entire case was solved essentially by one single detective. The story of one man is apparently better entertainment than the story of many, apparently, it’s just a shame that that this one man hasn’t the hallmarks of a compelling character.
These dalliances with the truth aren’t entirely able to ruin the film, but they do fracture the spell that it occasionally casts thanks to the performances and occasionally quite beautiful and cinematic photography. It’s hard not to be moved by Leah Vandenberg as Ivan Milat’s girlfriend, or Sacha Horler in her single scene as Ivan’s ex-wife, abused and ignored by the police. Malcolm Kennard, too, is suitably compelling and sinisterly charismatic as Milat, one of the most infamous people in Australian criminal history. By the end credits, the toll of this incredible story is well and truly felt, but the contrived way that one man’s story was edited and molded to fit only seeks to dilute the potency.