ATLANTA — A new film explores the unique connection that formed between two broken people following one of the most terrifying events in Atlanta’s recent history: a deadly courthouse shooting rampage.
Brian Nichols overpowered a deputy escorting him to court on March 11, 2005, for his rape trial, took her gun and fatally shot the presiding judge and court reporter and then killed a sheriff’s deputy outside the building. He stole a car and drove to an affluent Atlanta neighborhood, where he shot and killed an off-duty federal agent.
Ashley Smith was a lonely, widowed meth addict who had repeatedly failed in her attempts to kick drugs and regain custody of her 5-year-old daughter. When she returned from a cigarette run a bit after 2 a.m. on March 12, 2005, Nichols forced her into her suburban apartment at gunpoint.
The film “Captive,” based on Smith’s book “Unlikely Angel,” was released Friday by Paramount Pictures. The film chronicles the seven hours that followed as Nichols held Smith hostage while a massive manhunt for him was under way.
Smith had seen Nichols’ face on the news. And she figured his arrival on her doorstep in suburban Duluth, more than 20 miles from the downtown Atlanta courthouse, was a message from God that she’d messed her life up so badly that she was no longer worthy of living, said the since remarried mother of three, who now goes by Ashley Smith Robinson. She spoke with The Associated Press by telephone.
In the film, Smith, played by Kate Mara, gains the trust of an agitated Nichols, played by David Oyelowo, by reading from Rick Warren’s best-selling devotional book “The Purpose Driven Life,” talking about God and family.
“What it boils down to is one day we’re all going to stand before God and we’re going to have to answer for what we did or did not do,” she said. “I guess that’s why I was able to see him as a human being instead of just as a monster that night.”
Oyelowo’s portrayal at times makes Nichols seem like a sympathetic character, which can be jarring given the horror Nichols had perpetrated.
There’s no question Nichols was a monster that day, Oyelowo said in a phone interview, but in Nichols’ encounter with Smith, “through the humanity that she had and the vulnerability that she had and the way she treated him, somehow the humanity that was in him was able to come to the fore.”
That led him to release her and surrender peacefully to police.
In a particularly powerful moment of the film Nichols, who has used some of Smith’s meth, holds a gun to her head and says he’ll kill her if she doesn’t take some too. She refuses.
Smith had struggled with drug addiction since high school and her husband had died in her arms several years earlier after being stabbed in a fight.
“I feel with all my heart that Jesus took the body of Brian Nichols and said to me, ‘Do you want to continue living this life because if you want to continue living this life, go ahead and do those drugs and we’ll bring you home. But if you say no this one time, I have a life that you could never ever imagine,’ ” she said.
She never touched drugs again and recognizes Nichols’ role in turning her life around. She emerged from the incident a heroine, hailed by police for her calm dealings with Nichols. She wrote a book based on the ordeal and joined the speaking circuit to inspire others with her story.
Faith is a powerful driver in the film, but Oyelowo, who was also a producer, said he doesn’t want the drama to be characterized as faith-based. He wants that aspect to be more integrated and organic rather than preachy or agenda-ridden, he said.
“It’s not about one person who has it all together preaching to someone else about how to get their life together and that working,” he said, adding that it’s the journey of two broken people who come to realize “hope can always be found in the midst of a dark place.”
Smith and Nichols never spoke again and when she testified at his trial, she completely avoided eye contact, she said.
Nichols is serving a life prison sentence without the possibility of parole for the killings of Fulton County Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes, court reporter Julie Ann Brandau, sheriff’s Deputy Hoyt Teasley and federal agent David Wilhelm.