If the Fred Wiseman of the ’60s made a film about cops in the age of body-cams and Black Lives Matter — a verité documentary called “Police,” to place alongside his classic lean and clear-eyed institutional studies “High School” and “Titicut Follies” — it might look something like “The Force.” An even-handed, no-easy-answers exposé that won this year’s Sundance documentary prize for Best Director (the filmmaker is Peter Nicks), the movie chronicles two tumultuous years in the life of the Oakland Police Department. It starts in 2014, the year after a new chief has come in — the fifth one in a decade. Why the rolling heads? Because the Oakland police, after clash upon clash with the local community, were being held up as a paragon of law enforcement in need of reform.
In 2002, the department was placed under federal oversight, yet none of the changes implemented seemed to work. Then Chief Sean Whent came in. An officious, unassuming, rather mild man — the anti-Daryl Gates — whose reign brackets the movie, he’s about as “liberal” a police chief as you’re going to get; he enforces a zero-tolerance attitude toward intolerance. His goal is to radically cut down on shootings — not only the unjust ones, but on all violence (and bad judgment) emanating from the cops.
The strength, and fascination, of “The Force” is that the movie isn’t on anyone’s side. It’s cognizant of the brutality and violence that police officers, in our era, have been caught on phone cameras committing. At the same time, it’s not out to demonize the police — it’s out to capture the pressures they’re under, and to show us what their job looks like from the inside. Watching the movie, you learn a lot about police work, but few of the moral tussles on display are resolved, and that may be the film’s weakness as well as its strength. This is the rare fly-on-the-wall (or fly-in-the-squad-car) documentary that, at times, comes close to making you wish it were a little less “objective.”
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In the 1970s, the Knapp Commission, instigated by the corruption scandals uncovered by Frank Serpico, didn’t just “clean up” the NYPD. It introduced a new ethic of big-city police work, one that would no longer make room for cronyism and graft as something that greased the wheels — as “part of the system.” It’s not like there’s never been a corrupt cop since, but the nature of police work did start to change; it moved toward becoming more responsible and, arguably, more bureaucratic, less shrouded in clandestine mystique. “The Force,” using the Oakland Police Department as a microcosm of the dilemmas and tensions and controversies that face American cops today, captures a further evolutionary spin of the police toward the ethos of what might be called politically correct law enforcement.
When Chief Whent tells his troops, “We don’t have a blue wall of silence here,” he means that he wants his cops to be loyal to the institution and to the law, rather than to each other. Beneath that seemingly noble goal lies an agenda that’s actually quite radical. The police shooting of innocent men, especially African-Americans, and the inflamed spotlighting of the issue by the Black Lives Matter movement hovers over “The Force.” How, Whent seems to ask, can his department avoid such tragedies? The only answer seems to be: By taking police aggression out of the equation.
“The Force” captures what police work looks like in an age when cops are expected to behave like infinitely benign human drones. The Oakland Police Department is chronically understaffed, and the cops work 12-hour shifts, with one scheduled investigative call after the next and barely a break for lunch. We see them in tear-gas training, and in seminars where issues of respect for the community are drilled into their heads. When a woman complains at a town-hall meeting that it took three days for her to receive a police visit after her home was broken into and robbed, the answer she gets is unsatisfying but also, in its way, understandable: Policing violent crime was simply a greater priority.
It’s a more loaded situation when we confront a dashboard-video playback that’s used for training purposes: An officer pulls up to a house and orders the driver out of a car, and when he’s on the ground, the officer shoots him nearly 10 times. It’s a ballistic nightmare — it looks like the Rodney King video to the 100th power. But then we hear the video deconstructed and debated. The victim, in this case, had no weapon besides a knife, but the officer in question didn’t know that he had a knife. So when the victim didn’t follow orders and stay still on the ground, the officer thought that he might have been reaching for a gun. The murder of this man still looks and feels unconscionable, yet as we hear it from the cop’s point of view, a worm of ambiguity is introduced. We think: “A slimy, dishonest rationalization — or is it somehow possible that the officer could have been justified?”
The way we’re left with a question, rather than an answer, speaks to the dramatic open-mindedness of “The Force.” Yet it also speaks to the film’s ultimate lack of a powerful point of view. Wiseman, in his great films, used “objective” cinema to express his skepticism toward the institutionalization of American life. Peter Nicks, the director of “The Force,” appears to have no agenda, and in a sense he should be applauded for that, yet his refusal to draw conclusions has a downside.
In the end, even the head of Chief Whent gets rolled, when he leaves his post in the middle of a sex scandal. Several officers were found guilty of sleeping with (and prostituting) a teenage girl, and the film suggests — rather inconclusively, with scant evidence — that Whent protected them, but that he did so only because he knew how badly the revelation of the scandal would set back the cause of reform. If so, what is the film’s conclusion about that situation? At this point, something is called for beyond fly-on-the-wall objectivity. “The Force” leaves you with the sense that building a moral police force is a Sisyphean task, one that may even be doomed. Yet for all its dutiful recording of reality, the film never dares to ask whether the police are more or less destined to occupy a gray zone, rather than a true-blue zone, because that’s built into the existential nature of what they do.