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An intriguing and well-executed attempt to supply something Americans were denied in 2014, Roee Messinger’s American Trial: The Eric Garner Story uses non-actors and real community members to imagine a trial that Staten Island grand jurors inexplicably refused to hold: In this conjured reality, unlike our own, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo is indicted for reckless manslaughter and first-degree strangulation in the killing of unarmed New Yorker Eric Garner. Rather than seeking emotional satisfaction with an impassioned screed against injustice, the film conceives both a prosecution and a vigorous defense — a strategy that makes this experiment affecting, despite limited production resources and the six years that have passed since Garner’s tragic death.
There’s only one actor in the film: Anthony Altieri, who plays Pantaleo in good faith as a cop who believed he was doing the right thing. Both his defense team (Robert Brown, Priya Chaudhry) and the prosecution (Steven Raiser, Thomas Kenniff) are played by real-life lawyers; the presiding judge (Isabelle Kirshner) is really a criminal-defense attorney. The silent faces in the jury box are ordinary citizens, and real expert witnesses are called to testify. Poignantly, Garner’s widow Esaw Snipes-Garner and his longtime friend James Knight play appropriate parts in the drama.
After beginning with a brief and to-the-point summation of what actually happened — the film naturally starts with the eyewitness video of Garner’s arrest, and will return to it many times — American Trial leaps to law offices in its imagined timeline. In one, we see prosecutors announce the charges they think they can prove, both of which are felonies that carry possible 15-year sentences; in another, we watch a clenched Pantaleo discussing his chances with Brown and Chaudhry.
As those two visit the scene of the incident and construct a narrative in which a half-dozen police officers could justifiably be afraid of arresting one (admittedly very large) man, the doc invites some commentary from people not involved in its fantasy. A celebrity lawyer who has famously taken the wrong side in many cases sheds some light on legalities; civil-rights activist Netta Elzie calmly asks the question that caused such anguished protests: “How did we go from point A [the alleged sale of “loosie” cigarettes] to point B” — the chokehold and pile-on of officers that killed Eric Garner?
Though there’s no doubt where his sympathies lie, first-time feature director Messinger is dispassionate in the courtroom, allowing both sides to present reasoned arguments. Viewers hear many variations on the theme that a man who famously yelled “I can’t breathe” was obviously breathing when he said that; and though the arrest itself would seem to be a needless escalation for such a petty offense, lawyers claim Pantaleo was following a lawful order from headquarters. (Uglier are the defense lawyers’ attempts to blame Garner’s death on obesity and asthma, as if cops can’t be liable when their use of force triggers underlying conditions.)
The trial is purposefully less polished and dramatic than those we’re used to seeing onscreen, but its point is not to dazzle us. It’s to take the many arguments on both sides of the controversy and subject them to the rules and decorum of the law. At a time when most Americans immediately dismiss ideas that emerge from a certain news outlet or circle of pundits, we’re deprived of what Messinger and his collaborators offer here: the moral process of placing opposing sides on a level playing field, letting each respond to the other without cutting away to an opinionated host, and asking if we still stand by the belief we walked in with. In its way, American Trial brings that process to life: Ending before the jury announces a verdict, the film invites viewers to cast votes online. A May 21 live-stream/interview event will announce the result.
That may sound a little too much like American Idol to be appropriate, given the weight of these matters. But in the absence of a real trial, with a jury and the prospect of prison, it may be the best version of “the court of public opinion” we’re going to get.
Production company: Platonic Films
Distributor: Passion River Films (Available Monday, May 18 in virtual cinemas)
Director: Roee Messinger
Producers: Alena Svyatova, Roee Messinger
Executive producers: Ralph Richardson, James Jenkins
Director of photography: Aharon Rothschild
Production designer: Alex McCarron
Costume designer: Raxann Chin
Editor: Nikolai Metin
Casting director: Lynn Marocola
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