*. The word “charisma” comes from a Greek word meaning “gift” — and in particular a gift of grace, or gift freely given — which is an etymology that hints at its mysterious origin. Where does charisma come from? How does it work? Why do some people have it and others don’t? God only knows.
*. The mystery of charisma is what makes us wonder at so many political and religious leaders. Apparently Hitler had it, though watching film of him today he seems ridiculous. I guess you had to be there. Charles (Charlie) Manson must have had some, since he managed to gather together a small cult (or “family”) whose members eventually would kill for him. This despite being a smaller-than-average (5’4″), uneducated, no-talent jailbird/bum with delusions of grandeur.
*. I think that to some degree, and probably a pretty large degree, people seduce themselves. A significant number of German people were waiting for someone like Hitler to come around. Manson was able to prey on not-very-bright young women with low self esteem and daddy issues. Part of being charismatic is knowing your audience and adapting your performance and message to it. Both Hitler and Manson made a conscious study of this.
*. Charisma can be a difficult property to capture on film, especially when the charismatic in question is a creepy character. Did you think Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd in The Master was the kind of guy who could start his own religion? Did you feel drawn to him or falling under his spell? If not, how well could you relate to the events depicted in that movie?
*. There have been some portrayals of cult leaders that have captured their dark charisma. Powers Boothe as Jim Jones in the TV-movie Guyana Tragedy (1980) is one. And Steve Railsback did a credible Charlie Manson in the TV-movie Helter Skelter (1974).
*. Manson’s Lost Girls was also released as a TV-movie, premiering on the Lifetime channel. The similarities end there though, as Jeff Ward doesn’t really convince me as the demonic Pied Piper of the Spahn Ranch. He’s believable as a psychopath, but we don’t get the charm. He seems like a child, always ready to fly off the handle whenever he doesn’t get his way. That may be (and I think probably is) a fair understanding of the kind of guy Manson was, but, particularly in a film like this, we needed to see or be made to feel more of his hypnotic power.
*. The reason I say this is because, as the title indicates, the main focus here is on his harem of hippie chicks. Unfortunately, we never come to understand them. How did they end up here? What did they see in Charlie?
*. Manson himself is, I think, whitewashed. For starters, even by the standards of his day he held outrageously racist and sexist views, believing in a battle to the death between whites and blacks and treating all women as sex slaves and domestic drudges. These essential elements of his world view aren’t even touched on here. If anything, the Manson we get is more like the idealized figure his girls imagined than the real thing.
*. Perhaps more attention needed to be given to just one of the girls, like the narrator Linda Kasabian (Mackenzie Mauzy). As it is, the others are really too vacant to ever get a grip on. Eden Brolin is very good as the enforcer Susan Atkins, but she doesn’t have another level to her.
*. I can’t say this movie engaged me much, and it did little to evoke a sense of the time and place beyond the music and the fact that the men have hair on their chests. Remember that?
*. Most of all, however, it didn’t do enough to address the nature of the charismatic relationship. There’s a coda with Linda being questioned by Vincent Bugliosi (the Manson prosecutor who wrote Helter Skelter) where he tries to understand Manson’s hold on the girls and she just says that he made them feel special. This comes as a throwaway, and one that wouldn’t have been necessary if the rest of the movie had explored the matter more thoroughly.