By Christopher Campbell | Spout July 6, 2011 at 1:25AM
I tend to think very contextually about films I'm watching and therefore it's sometimes necessary to reference these contexts when reviewing films. For Yoav Potash's "Crime After Crime," it was only circumstantial that I viewed the legal documentary on Independence Day, and only slightly a coincidence that a lawyer friend complained on said holiday about those incarcerated who are not free but should be. Now I write this as the verdict comes in, with all the nation anxious to hear it, for an over-mediated trial involving a case that seems far less important than that of many others in this country, including Debbie Peagler, the subject of this film and a name as obscure as Casey Anthony's is now famous. I won't bother commenting on the cases themselves as my opinion of them is not pertinent to the discussion of a single film, but I will urge anyone who cared about Anthony's trial in the slightest to watch more legal docs, including "Crime After Crime."
Peagler, whose back story is set up quite efficiently at the start of the documentary, went to prison in 1983 for the murder of her abusive boyfriend, whom she was said to have had killed for the insurance money. She was sentenced to 25 years-to-life. This was, as we're told, a time before the battered women's movement and long before a California law allowed for cases like hers to be reopened on account of the domestic violence circumstances, evidence of which wasn't admissible the first time around. Early last decade, attorneys Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa, both of whom typically deal with land use issues, took up Peagler's case pro bono and brought on a private detective (Sydney Pollack lookalike Bobby Buechler) and a film crew headed by their friend (Potash), who gained rare access to Peagler and the massive Central California Women's Facility prison as both her "legal videographer" and separately for a half hour PBS documentary titled "Life on the Inside." Their collective involvement lasted many more years than expected.
Although Peagler is the main subject of the film, she is not its protagonist. This is often the case with legal docs, which tend to follow the legal investigation more than the initial crime narrative. Because "Crime After Crime" involves an attempt at freedom, it's hard not to think about "The Thin Blue Line," the protagonist for which is actually its director, Errol Morris, despite the fact that he's barely a presence on screen. Here, while Potash is on two or three occasions visible in a somewhat first-person style, its Safran and Costa who are our heroes. We may empathize with Peagler throughout her life story, which is easily mistaken as our primary focus since it's presented from the film's start to its finish with a timeline-based chapter structure, and obviously it's her up and down struggle (every few years we get another "we've got good news and bad news" conversation) that is worth caring about over the technical failures and successes of her legal team, but it is really Safran's tearful breakdown at one point that matters here, whether you like that or not.
Only early on do I have a problem with the film being concentrated on the lawyers -- or, really I just take issue with how much they get to verbally tell Peagler's story. Are they allowed to give this secondhand information instead of it coming directly from her or from friends and family who were around at the time simply to allow for more voices to cut between? Are they merely filling in gaps that Peagler and the other interviewees left open or forgot? Either way, I find Safran and Costa's accounts of what happened to Peagler unnecessary in a doc that actually features that person who experienced these events. Attorneys can be the storytellers in court, but here we want more firsthand testimonials for those things occurring prior to their involvement. Fortunately this problem only exists for a limited introductory period. I also groaned a bit when Safran draws us a diagram illustrating the appeals and parole processes, but thinking back I appreciate that for once a doc didn't do this kind of exposition through cute animations.
In spite of who the protagonists are for "Crime After Crime," it's no pedestal-placing film for lawyers on either the level of a dramatized true story like "Conviction" or the recent civil court doc "Hot Coffee." Yet it does celebrate the type of passionate, dedicated and free legal work conducted on screen by the duo of Safran and Costa. And in turn it villain-izes prosecuting politicians like Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley and Assistant DA Lael Rubin (once portrayed by Mercedes Ruhl in a TV movie, we're reminded), both of whom get their own rather Michael Moore-ish confrontation at different times, while also taking great aim at grand problems with both the judicial and prison systems. At times the doc is comparable to its Sundance classmate, "How to Die in Oregon," if not for how it's similarly likely to leave many viewers in tears than for the way it takes new legislation specific to one state (this time California), with occasional reminder that the other 49 states are without such a necessary law, and subtly argues for its national implementation.
"Crime After Crime," the title for which refers to the crimes of injustice committed by Cooley and others after the alleged original crime of Peagler, is great at making us think of multiple larger issues, including those dealing with the female prison population, domestic abuse, hazardous prison conditions and many more causes marginally associated with Peagler's case and her story. Most of which are more worthy of cable news attention and address than anything to come out of the sensational ratings-grab trials normally covered in the name of true crime entertainment. It's interesting that Peagler's complete innocence, which is apparent, is not discussed much. Perhaps because it's not the point. But in that regard it's also remarkable to think how it matters none to the film whether she murdered her boyfriend or had him murdered or had absolutely nothing to do with it. It's the same story and case even if she's basically guilty of a crime. Potash's restraint in sticking to the matter of justice at hand is surprising and very respectable. Then again, he doesn't need to be so black and white on one side's martyrdom and the other side's corruption.
It's totally the sort of hugs and hankies doc perfectly suited for Oprah's OWN network (which will air the film in November via its Documentary Club), but it's also not what you'd expect if you're aware of the filmmaker's proximity to his protagonist (Potash was Safran's best man). More important than dramatic, more cause-minded than storyteller, "Crime After Crime" is nevertheless a worthwhile legal doc for those more concerned with the legal process and its faults than a riveting narrative.
"Crime After Crime" is now playing in NYC and opens in LA this Friday.
Recommended If You Like: "The Thin Blue Line"; "Conviction"; "Til Death Do Us Part"