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Peace Officer
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by Jay Seaver

"A sadly familiar situation made a bit more digestible."
4 stars

"Dub" Lawrence is a disconcertingly cheerful face with which to sell the idea that the militarization of American police forces is out of hand; it's a serious, life-and-death subject to which he has a highly personal connection, and yet he spends much of the movie with a big grin. Maybe the idea of being the center of a movie just tickled him, or maybe he's just glad to get his message heard. Or maybe he figures that the people who need to absorb this lesson are so used to being lectured and browbeaten that they need to be approached with a smile. Maybe that will actually help.

His particular story pivots around the events of 22 September 2008, when the former sheriff's son-in-law was killed during a standoff with dozens of police officers, including a full SWAT team, despite apparently only being a threat to himself. Lawrence begins an investigation of how things went so wrong, and eventually becomes involved in reconstructing two similar incidents in his home state of Utah. His work with the families of those involved appears to indicate a disturbing pattern of excessive force leading to tragedy followed by half-hearted official investigations, but only rarely leads to justice being done.

Of course, those on the other side of the case would beg to differ, and directors Bard Barber & Scott Christopherson give them enough chances to speak that, depending upon where a viewer stands going in, he or she will feel that they have been given enough rope with which to hang themselves, a fair chance to speak their peace, or a bad edit. I personally don't think there's a lot of doubt that the filmmakers have made sure to include the moments which highlight the growing belief that there's a growing and dangerous "us versus them" mentality in policing, and suspect that there will be some objections along the lines of how the civilians' own flaws are downplayed despite the filmmakers' spending a fair amount of time early on focusing on the faults of Lawrence's son-in-law.

Though this is a complicated issue, the filmmakers do what they can to streamline things: Though there are brief references to Ferguson, Missouri, sticking around Utah mostly keeps race out of the equation, and they utterly bypass any question of gun control. And while there are long sequences detailing how Dub's investigations find evidence that the evidently-cursory official inquiries missed, recovering bullets from the scene months later, there is very little done to dig into this side of the coin - the systematic way that departments and prosecutors close ranks rather than rooting out the bad cops.

Limiting the story to Lawrence's general area also gives the film a single human face, as opposed to the issue being the star. And for all that he may be strangely cheerful given the subject matter, he also seems to know his stuff and explain ballistics fairly well, although it's noteworthy that the film moves away from him when talking about the proliferation of SWAT teams beginning in the 1970s; though he established the one that killed his on-in-law, he sort of shrugs when asked about it - that's what police departments were doing back then. On the other hand, it's tough not to love the metaphor of him spending his later years running a pipe-cleaning service before being drawn back into investigations - the guy's mission is to clear the crap out.

Lawrence may not be an ideal protagonist, much like the cases he's investigating don't have idea victims or perfect villains, but that's part of the point - one shouldn't have to fit a perfect standard to have justice done. Lawrence gives Barber & Christopherson a way to put a living human face on stories generally represented by victims all too often dismissed as just criminals, and in doing so make a movie that hopefully has a chance of changing a few minds.

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originally posted: 10/15/15 09:40:22
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival For more in the 2015 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 AFI Docs For more in the 2015 AFI Docs Festival series, click here.

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  11-Sep-2015 (NR)
  DVD: 01-Mar-2016



Directed by
  Scott Christopherson
  Brad Barber

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