Being a movie fan means that you seek film out wherever you can find it. It used to be that if nothing worthwhile was playing in the theater, you were out of luck. Then in 1961, recently released movies — instead of just oldies — started playing on television. A couple of decades later, home-video was born. And now, with Netflix, Hulu, various On Demand services and more, you can watch pretty much any movie any time you want.
Being married to a law professor makes me no more of a legal expert than does my obsessive watching of the television show “Law & Order.” What those two pursuits illustrate, though, is my long-held interest in American jurisprudence – especially in how that system is interpreted though television and film.
While mainstream movie theaters have opened little of interest throughout most of July – except, of course, for fans of Michael Bay, Melissa McCarthy and talking apes – I found myself looking for something a bit more mentally stimulating. And that’s how I stumbled upon “The Staircase.”
Actually, one of my wife’s Gonzaga Law School colleagues – Professor Ann Murphy – recommended “The Staircase,” which was released in the U.S. as a 2004 miniseries. And she lent us her copy of the two-DVD set, which comprises eight 45-minute chapters.
French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade – best known for having won an Oscar in 2002 for the Documentary Feature “Murder on a Sunday Morning” – focuses “The Staircase” on a 2001 murder in Durham, North Carolina. Novelist Michael Peterson was accused of killing his wife, Kathleen, whose blood-spattered body was found at the base of a staircase in their home.
While Peterson claimed his wife’s death was an accident, Durham police suspected otherwise. And in short order, they arrested Peterson and tried him for murder. With his cameras haunting Peterson, his family and defense team – led by the charismatic attorney David Rudolf – de Lestrade gives us as much access to the inner workings of the legal process as any fictional narrative. The difference, being, of course that “The Staircase” presents real-life people.
Yet I doubt any credible novelist’s twists, subplots and dramatic discoveries could compete with what de Lestrade gives us. You have the crime itself, which devastates a seemingly happy blended family that includes five children. You have the conflicting expert opinions on whether Kathleen’s death was the result of murder or an accidental fall facilitated by wine and valium. You have questions about Michael’s past, including his connection years earlier with a woman whose manner of death eerily resembled Kathleen’s. You have questions about Michael himself that the prosecution uses as a bludgeon against the defense’s picture of a perfect Peterson marriage. And you have the last-second appearance of an important piece of possibly exculpatory evidence.
All aspects of the case and the movie – which is freely available online – are well documented. And the controversies surrounding both are still being argued, with all parties claiming to reflect the literal truth. De Lestrade has even followed up with a 2013 sequel, “The Staircase II: The Last Chance,” which I haven’t yet seen, that apparently centers on questionable forensics used by the prosecution.
But regardless of the court decision, that search for a so-called truth is what makes “The Staircase” so fascinating. Does such a truth exist? De Lestrade’s movie would seem to answer no. It holds a mirror up to the legal system, and those of us who look tend to see whatever fits our own view of the world.