Review: Iowa documentary Who Took Johnny


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Missing children and the ghosts they leave behind are specters which have likely haunted humans since the advent of our species — a primordial parental anxiety. Advances in transportation and communication technology only exacerbate the problem of human trafficking. Who Took Johnny is an Iowa-centered documentary exploring society’s treatment of this ugly issue and how it affects lives across the country every day.

Twelve-year-old Johnny Gosch — the first missing kid to appear on the side of a milk carton — disappeared while on his paper route in Des Moines on Sept. 5, 1982. Filmmakers David Beilinson, Suki Hawley, and Michael Galinsky spent 10 years chasing Gosch’s story and its surrounding controversies in order to attempt to answer one question: What happened to Johnny Gosch?

Original interviews and previously aired footage combine eerily, weaving an increasingly complicated tale. Initially the film focuses on Noreen Gosch, Johnny’s mother. Though this beginning is somewhat slow, it serves to introduce the personal devastation these kinds of disappearances generate. Her well-founded rage with stone-faced policemen at first feels like an underwhelming climax to the documentary.

However, the narrative soon spirals into deliciously scary territory. Once the second act of this documentary begins you will not be able to leave it alone. What opens as the story of the first missing child to show up on a milk carton soon becomes an intricate investigation into possible conspiracy and the negligent practices of law enforcement.

The depth and breadth of interviews represented in the film and their clever editing make the movie. We get the input of implicated criminals, law enforcement officials, and victims in equal measure. Conclusions regarding the voracity of the various claims are left largely up to the viewer.

Most impressive to me though is how effortlessly the film transitions between the specific case of Johnny to the broader issue of the trafficking of minors. It never feels like the narrative loses its focus, but it still manages to cover an array of wider-ranging implications.

Viewer beware: this is not an easy viewing experience. Some of the images presented are truly harrowing, as they should be. One of the movie’s major themes revolves around the unwillingness of our society to acknowledge this issue due to its unpleasant nature. The struggle Johnny’s mother goes through to gain recognition should soften even the hardest of hearts.

The historical significance of this case and how it pertains to all current and future cases of child abductions is not to be missed. I went in with few expectations, and what I discovered shocked me to the very marrow of my bones.

Make no mistake, the contents of this film are important, almost necessary, for anyone not yet familiar with this issue. I learned quite a lot, and I am sure there are many people out there with the same lack of knowledge I had going into the film. Its content is shocking in the best way — inspiring you to pay better attention to the world around you.

By no means an easy movie to watch, I still recommend it to anyone who cares about their fellow human beings. Intelligently directed, it unfolds with the tight drama of a detective narrative, shedding light on one of America’s most under-examined social anxieties without any fear of consequence. A truly important and valuable historical document.

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