Review by Sean Boelman
Roee Messinger’s new documentary American Trial: The Eric Garner Story should be praised for taking a mostly unprecedented approach to its material. However, despite the best of intentions, the narrative structure of the film may be just a little too abnormal for it to have the anticipated impact.
The movie tells the story of Eric Garner, an African-American man who died during a police confrontation in which the NYPD officer arresting him held him in a way as to restrict his breathing. This incident spurred a nationwide controversy over whether or not the officer had committed manslaughter, and resulted in protests when said officer was not indicted.
What is so unique about Messinger’s film is that it discusses the issues in a theoretical mock trial that could have happened had Officer Daniel Pantaleo been charged in a criminal court. It’s an interesting concept, but also a potentially very dangerous one, especially if uninformed viewers come in with different expectations.
Thankfully, Messinger does a lot to remediate the issue, with an extensive sequence at the end revealing the truth of the situation and clarifying the liberties that were taken for dramatic purposes, but that may not be enough. With the movie being released for home viewing, it is entirely possible that audiences will decide to turn the film off right after the main portion ends, leaving them with a different understanding of what happened.
But even in terms of simulating a real trial, there are some parts of the movie that don’t quite work. Apart from an actor portraying Pantaleo (who didn’t participate for obvious reasons), everyone involved in the film is a real lawyer, field expert, or witness to the events, and this gives the movie a certain level of authenticity.
Yet there are still portions of the film, especially during the first part, that come across as completely fake. For example, there is a lot more explanation happening than would occur in a real courtroom. While this is done for the sake of keeping the audience in the loop on what is happening, it can also draw informed viewers out of the movie.
Messinger also doesn’t stick with the theoretical trial structure for the entirety of the runtime. He cuts away after pivotal scenes to other staged behind-closed-door conversations or interviews with other experts to provide additional context. This wrecks the entertaining pacing that is admittedly the film’s main draw.
American Trial: The Eric Garner Story is a documentary that tries something new, but unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work. Perhaps with a more seasoned documentarian at the helm, there is something of value in this format.
American Trial: The Eric Garner Story is now streaming in partnership with indie theaters. A list of participating locations can be found here.