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Crime + Punishment
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by Jay Seaver

"Watching the watchmen."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2018: At times "Crime + Punishment" feels like two related documentaries superglued together, as director Stephen Maing tells the stories of a dozen NYPD officers suing the department over an illegal quota system alongside that of a teenager held for a year before trial as a result of such a system. It makes for a somewhat crowded movie, but a compelling one, especially as one half of the story, at least, can have some resolution.

It opens by introducing the audience to Sandy Gonzalez, a uniformed officer in the South Bronx (40th Precinct) who writes relatively few citations and makes fewer arrests than many of his colleagues, though not necessarily because he is any less vigilant or committed. The issue is that even though such quotas have technically been forbidden in New York City for some time, officers are still very much judged on making numbers - tickets are a revenue source for the city, and it is often better to be seen as proactive (even if charges are later dismissed) than ineffective. Gonzalez, on top of contacting Maing, joins a class-action lawsuit filed by other officers who feel that their careers have stalled despite being good cops, with their lawyer employing private investigator Manny Gomez, who is also working the case of Pedro Hernandez, a teenager arrested for a violent crime on in part because the police were intent on making a quick collar.

It's no coincidence that those names are all Latin - nearly all of the plaintiffs in the suit are either Latinx or African-American, with much of the work being done within fraternities for minority officers. Ethnicity is an important factor in this story, although it's the sort where white viewers especially might bristle, seeing the relative lack of overt, slur-using racism and concluding that what these officers are seeing is a matter of class rather than race, if that. Maing seems aware of that impulse and works with it, both allowing his subjects to explain how the outcomes of this policy are effectively targeted and showing enough of the general way people interact with the police to let the audience feel the atmosphere created.

That's why Pedro Hernandez's story winds up being a crucial part of the film; as much as it can seem like a tangent that doesn't quite connect with the main thrust, it's a crucial way to demonstrate how the scope of what starts with Gonzalez has much broader implications. Maing and his editorial department integrate it well; though Hernandez's story takes up less time that the other thread, the two never feel disjointed or out of sync. Maing's also good at appropriating genre tropes without forcing the film to emulate fiction. There are moments where Crime + Punishment feels like a great detective picture with its scenes of meeting informants and recording conversations, but doesn't twist itself to fit that mold.

Maing serves as his own cinematographer also has a good eye, peppering the movie with sharp, foreboding shots that combine the slate grays one associates with a gritty crime movie with a digital sharpness that highlights the straight lines of the city and emphasizes the documentary clarity the picture is looking to achieve rather than the murk the filmmakers initially waded into. The filmmakers also seem to have developed a good enough rapport with their subjects to not only get exceptional access but to be vouched for - Maing never seems to be shooting around anything, and he gets good footage even when he must necessarily be hidden.

Stories about police tactics can be especially fraught - the film's timeframe overlaps with the death of Eric Garner and does not shy away from this fact - and it is almost a given that this film is not exactly likely to be seen, let alone well-received, by people different than the ones that sell out a film festival screening in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If it is seen, it's at least got the fact that it's a specific story, well-told and with an eye on the broader implications, to its credit.

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originally posted: 05/19/18 03:27:42
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2018 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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