As a document, the film is a Balzacian foray into the complex workings of society, high and low. There’s a dead society lady and the complex, sexually adventurous novelist-husband who stands accused of her murder. There’s a brilliant defense lawyer and a pair of dogged prosecutors who compensate for their lack of sophistication with a relentless moralizing zeal. There are the good-looking playboy sons, and then there are the two adopted girls who have lost one father and two mothers and now are keeping fervent vigil over their one remaining parent, the man who stands in the dock whose name is Michael Peterson. The film is an eight-part documentary called The Staircase, and whatever else it may be, it’s a gripping tale that has the qualities of a 19th-century social novel and a 20th-century procedural crime paperback. As a film, it offers the perverse pleasures of such cinematic landmarks as the PBS series An American Family and American Beauty. Those who subscribe to the Sundance Channel will be able to watch it beginning April 4, and next week the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival will be showing the first two chapters–about 95 minutes–with the film’s producers in attendance.
Produced by the Oscar-winning team of Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and Denis Poncet (Murder on a Sunday Morning), the story is told verite-style, with no voiceover narration. Over the course of the eight episodes, all beautifully edited and scored with a Badalamenti-like string theme, we revisit the highs and lows of the case that alternately fascinated and repelled residents of the Triangle (and, eventually, viewers of Court TV).
At the outset, Peterson’s Forest Hills mansion is given a sweeping aerial shot, and we hear a recording of his anguished 911 call in the early morning of Dec. 9, 2001. We meet David Rudolf, the best-known defense lawyer in the state, who slips quite comfortably into the role of lawyer/hero. We follow the defense team to Germany, where a second woman died at the foot of a staircase in 1985. Later, we go to Texas where her body is exhumed, and we tag along as lawmen drive the corpse all the way back to North Carolina.
We meet well-drawn supporting characters such as Ron Guerette, a private eye from central casting, and the inimitable Brent Wolgamott, male prostitute and feckless chucklehead. We’re also treated to lengthy and intimate scenes inside the Peterson house, where his remaining family bunker down for the ordeal. Particularly compelling are Martha and Margaret Ratliff, daughters of the woman who died in 1985, who never waver in their belief in their adoptive father’s innocence.
Only at the outset did prosecutors Jim Hardin and Freda Black grant the filmmakers access to their preparations. Producer Denis Poncet, speaking last week from his office in Paris, speculates that the filmmakers were cut off because “Hardin wasn’t confident in his case. Honestly, they didn’t want us to see what they were doing.”
With the perspective thus limited to the defense side, Hardin and Black come off as the heavies, with Hardin’s stolid, workmanlike demeanor making him the good D.A. to the Cruella de Vil-like mien of Freda Black’s bad D.A. In fact, the film indulges in numerous malicious cutaways to Black making a variety of hideous scowls, a tactic that Poncet doesn’t deny.
“Of course, Jean has made some decisions to show how prosecution behaved,” Poncet says. But he adds, “You can also see cuts to David Rudolf that are not always good to him, where he sometimes appears arrogant and too sure of himself.”
Reactions in the Triangle are likely to be divided, and not just along the lines of belief in Peterson’s guilt or innocence. In a film about “pretense and appearances,” to quote Jim Hardin, The Staircase offers Triangle residents–Durhamites in particular–a rare opportunity to see ourselves as others might. (Intimates of Kathleen Peterson should know that this film makes liberal use of the autopsy photos of her lacerated scalp, as well as repeated glimpses of her lifeless body slumped against the bottom of the notorious staircase.)
The series has already played in Europe, Australia and Canada. On BBC’s Web page devoted to the film, viewers have posted comments that suggest that the Bull City is being seen as a present-day incarnation of Selma or Birmingham. “The people of the South can be wonderful but they are quite a different lot,” writes an American resident of Ireland.
One scene in particular is probably responsible for such reactions. The defense team retains a jury expert named Margie Fargo, a woman who may prompt Triangle viewers to hurl tomatoes. There’s a scene where a focus group is shown hypothetical testimony from forensics expert Henry Lee. The session is a flop, with several respondents seeming to discount Lee because of his Chinese accent. The jury consultant, a honeysuckle-tongued Southerner herself, says later to Rudolf, “This is not California. This is not New York. This is the South. Part of what we’re hearing here is a reaction to ethnic differences.”
In fairness, the film largely refrains from presenting a caricature of the South–the most scathing remarks about Durham come from the mouth of Michael Peterson. Still, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade has been considerably more outspoken in print. Not only does he agree that the emphasis on Peterson’s sexuality swayed the jury (something they all later denied), but he suggests that Rudolf’s style hurt him in the land of Atticus Finch.
On the BBC Web site, de Lestrade writes that Rudolf “forgot that he was in a North Carolina Courthouse and he was a Jewish lawyer from New York. Of course he is smarter than Jim Hardin, of course he is a much better lawyer…. But he showed that in front of the jury, and that was not a very clever attitude.” (Rudolf has lived in North Carolina since the 1970s.)
The film has already stirred the polite ire of Craig Jarvis of the News and Observer. In the N&O‘s edition of Sunday, March 27, the reporter accused the film of misrepresenting the true tenor of the trial. “The investigation and trial that unfold in the documentary,” he writes, “is not the one I covered for nearly two years as a news reporter.”
Perhaps Jarvis is merely being modest, but he doesn’t mention the adversarial encounter he had with Rudolf on the eve of the trial, when Jarvis published a long investigative piece about Peterson’s Vietnam record that was, in a word, unflattering. Rudolf made an extraordinary but unsuccessful effort to quash the story. No such scene is in the film, and Jarvis, whom I reached on Monday morning, says that the seemingly ubiquitous film crew was not present at the meeting.
Given his background, Jarvis’s critique of The Staircase is surprisingly mild. He writes, “There are recurring misrepresentations in the film,” a litany that begins and ends with his next sentence: “Key prosecution witnesses appear to derail under cross-examination while the dismantling of defense experts under the state’s questioning is not shown.”
Jarvis goes no further, but one such impeachment was detailed by Peter Eichenberger in these pages in 2003. Late in the trial, Hardin confronted Jan Leestma, one of Rudolf’s expensive forensics experts, with a passage from a textbook he’d written that contradicted his confident testimony about the accidental origin of Kathleen Peterson’s injuries. (“Now take your check and don’t let the door spank ya in the ass, ya puke,” Eichenberger wrote.)
Although Jarvis admits that he found the film “riveting,” he stands by his reservations. “I think their inside access came at a price. It skewed their perspective and caused them to overlook some of the physical evidence presented by the prosecution.”
For their part, the filmmakers maintain that, despite their chumminess with Peterson and Rudolf, they still “don’t know what the fuck happened,” in the words of Poncet. Instead, they’re amazed by the jury’s unwillingness to yield to reasonable doubt, which they feel was in ample supply.
Poncet cites an interview the N&O published after the trial, in which jurors were asked what they would like to ask Michael Peterson. “One of the jurors said, ‘What happened?’” Poncet recalls.
“It goes to show you they had no fucking idea what happened.”