On December 9, 2001 in a rich, white neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina, famous author Michael Peterson called 911 in hysterics to report that his wife Kathleen Peterson had fallen down the stairs and was barely breathing. When paramedics and officials arrived, she was dead, but the amount of blood at the scene caused the police enough alarm to arrest Michael Peterson on suspicion for the murder of his wife.
The Sundance series The Staircase is an unusual documentary in that filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade has access to Peterson as the case was unfolding, giving a gripping account of the process of the law in the United States.
Unfolding as an eight-part series of 45-minute episodes, The Staircase does take a bit of patience to get through, but it is worth it. Don’t look at this as a very very long documentary, but as a TV series that happens to be true-life. The series of episodes unfold chronologically, as the film crew gets impressive access to the defense team and Peterson in his own home as they prepare for his murder trial. Just when the defense thinks they are on a roll, unforeseen obstacles surface. A particular zinger that they didn’t expect was the revelation that Michael Peterson was bisexual and had trysts outside of marriage, a fact that his wife may not have even known. Much is made of the fact that this trial is not taking place in New York or Los Angeles, but in the culture of the South, where such a revelation could take Peterson down, regardless if he is guilty of the crime.
The Staircase is a fascinating, behind-the-scenes peek at the United States system of arrest, investigation, and trial. It exposes the tedium and the working and reworking of the facts and assumptions, before anything even gets to the courtroom. Even Peterson himself knows that he is one of the white, rich, privileged folks that can afford a “fair trial” simply because he can afford the best experts for his defense. He believes that if he weren’t well-known as a writer, and if his wife wasn’t a high-up Nortel executive, he probably wouldn’t even have been arrested for murder in the first place.
The only weakness of The Staircase is that the filmmakers were granted limited access to the prosecution team, which would have given the document of the process a more well-rounded vision. But this isn’t Law & Order. This was a real trial, so we’ll take what the film has to offer, which is more than I ever expected to see in a true-case documentary.