Comparisons to “Law & Order” and “CSI” will probably be inevitable, but helmer Lisa F. Jackson’s “Sex Crimes Unit” is the real thing, a gritty, emotional, up-close-and-procedural look at the actual New York district attorneys dedicated to prosecuting rape and sexual assault. HBO broadcast on June 20 seems an ideal showcase for a film that specializes in facts and forward momentum, to the point that some of its exposition almost seems scripted.Lisa Friel is the chief of the unit, first organized by former Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau in 1974 and led by the celebrated Linda Fairstein until 2002. Both appear in the film, framing the history of the unit and the huge strides sex-crime prosecution has made since the days when rape victims needed corroboration and their sexual histories were a fair target for defense attorneys. In contrast with her talking-head approach to Morgenthau and Fairstein, Jackson chooses to capture Friel and her senior assistant district attorneys — notably, deputy chief Coleen Balbert — in action. They are seen in the office, in court, discussing cases, juries and the grimy particulars of the crimes they have to prosecute with a thoroughness and attention to detail and legal nuance that is, in the end, a mixed blessing. While the viewer is provided with a short education in the fine points of rape prosecution, it begs the question of whether people who work together on a daily basis — and as the film tells us, 300 cases might be pending on any given day — really speak to each other in such an expository fashion. “Sex Crimes Unit” has drama, suspense, terrific personalities and a great deal of heart; a sense of spontaneity, not so much. The other subject Jackson chooses to shoot head-on is Natasha Alexenko, a woman for whom the word “heroine” might well have been invented. Raped by a stranger in the hallway of her Manhattan apartment building in 1993, just a year after having moved there from Canada, she recounts her various ordeals in a manner that, while never clinical, is always as cool and objective as possible; her nobility makes the movie come alive. Ten years after Alexenko’s attack, with the statute of limitations about to run out for her then-unknown assailant, Morgenthau’s office — specifically assistant district attorneys Melissa Mourges and Martha Bashford, of the cold-case division established in 2000 — proposed a virtuosic legal maneuver: Indict the DNA of Alexenko’s rapist, and thus stop the statutory clock. This required Alexenko to testify in court to get the indictment, and then to testify again four years later when a DNA match was finally made via Codis, the national DNA data bank. Alexenko’s story is stranger and braver than fiction, and it helps illuminate the difficulties faced by the Sex Crimes Unit as well as its tenacity in dealing with them. So does another case the film follows, the rape of a woman by a repeat sex offender whose previous conviction can’t be brought up in court, and whose victim in this instance happened to be a prostitute. The prosecution’s quandary: convincing a jury that a woman who sells sex can, in a sense, have it stolen from her. In the process of preparing both the case and the victim, the attorneys are portrayed as basic, funny, human people who just happen to be devoted to a job not many people could do, or would want to do. Tech credits are tops, most notably some crack editing by Christina Kaufman.
An HBO Documentary Films presentation in association with Jackson Films. Produced by Lisa F. Jackson. Executive producer, Sheila Nevins. Senior producer, Nancy Abraham. Co-producer, Jennifer Ollman. Directed by Lisa F. Jackson.
Camera (color), John Hazard, Guy Mossman; editor, Christina Kaufman; music, M.G. Espar; re-recording mixer, John M. Davis. Reviewed at Los Angeles Film Festival (Summer Showcase), June 18, 2011. Running time: 87 MIN.
Lisa Friel, Coleen Balbert, Natasha Alexenko, Kimberly Summers, Robert Morgenthau, Melissa Mourges, Martha Bashford, Linda Fairstein.