The Staircase is entertaining, consistently suprising, geuinely intriguing and on a few occasions very funny. A brilliantly made documentary with a fascinating cast of real-life people involved in a storyline which you'd only expect to find in a fictional movie. After seeing the outcome of the trial, I couldn't wait to discuss it with the friend who'd loaned me her copy. I highly recommend it and would buy it for many friends as a gift, but we really need it to be released as a REGION 2 DVD PLEASE!
I watched this recently after being told it was compulsive viewing and I have to say at first it didn't grip me but after sticking with it I found it compulsive and compelling viewing resulting in me crying during the verdict in the final episode. I found it very much along the vein of 'Capturing the Friedmanns'. The viewer is left to decide whether Michael Peterson is guilty of his wife's murder. Very interesting and rather sad especially seeing the effect on everyone concerned in the case.
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I've been on a bit of a documentary kick recently - and I stumbled across this after scouring the net for must watch documentaries, that have nothing in common with Michael Moore's pretentious and unintelligent propaganda!! This came up once or twice, and something just stood out about it - so I gave it a go.
I wasn't dissappointed.
This is officially the best documentary I've had the pleasure to watch - everything about it is perfect. It gives you both sides of the story and is very faithful to all stories and opinions - so unknowingly, you become a member of the jury whilst you watch.
Every episode contains mammoth plot twists and turns that you just couldn't make up - and as soon as you've reached a verdict in your mind, your opinion can change in a second. You really are left hanging on til the very end.
Another small thing - the music is fantastic - and it really adds to the sinister mood of the film.
Jean-Xavier de Lestrade has filmed an exquisite documentary and he's set the benchmark for future filmakers.
Sit back, watch, and prepare for the biggest courtroom rollercoaster of your life!
This film about a murder case, about the trial after it, is one of these American films, in fact a TV mini-series, on a real case that does not go in the normal direction, the direction of what we all should think not truth is but justice should be. There is such an enormous amount of doubt about the case, about the guilt and even about the murder itself that it is unbelievable that a unanimous verdict of guilt came out of the jury pool. Such cases are examples for us to question the system of justice we set up over the last four centuries. And the judge decided to impose life imprisonment but for first degree murder it could have been the death penalty. It is such cases that prove that jury justice is maybe good in many cases but there are a few cases where it is the worst possible system, and that is why the death penalty should be gotten rid of, and that's why we should make sure the defendants, now sentenced culprits, have access to all possibilities and opportunities to appeal the decision and to have the best councilors available. Jury justice in a world that is so deeply cut in small antagonistic pieces does not work in any sensitive delicate case because of any kind of un-namable bias having to do with race, wealth, age, sex, sexual orientation, and any other parameter you may think of. This case should be compared to other cases where the reverse decision was reached, but the model of such a case of failed justice was clearly written in a book and set to the screen a long time ago: "To Kill a Mocking Bird". Miscarriage of justice due to some kind of totally unmentionable prejudice. I am not sure though that the conclusion of "Romeo and Juliet" is the proper one here: "They are all Punished", because in Romeo and Juliet's case there was no trial, and especially no jury trial.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris Dauphine, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne & University Versailles Saint Quentin en Yvelines
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110 of 126 people found the following review helpful
A film that may stay with you...for the wrong reasons30 Nov. 2008
- Published on Amazon.com
As someone who's been intrigued since childhood by true crime stories and forensics, I was transfixed by this magnificently crafted documentary when it premiered some years ago on the Sundance Channel. The sinuous way that the narrative unfolds, how starkly the characters on all sides come to reveal themselves, the mystery of what actually happened to Kathleen Peterson, the tragedy of three families torn asunder over two decades, and all of it framed by truly haunting original music...I often found myself gasping in amazement and appreciation. What a rare opportunity to be a fly on the wall, an insider regarding this extraordinary and deeply disturbing story! I remember starting out with a strong feeling of sympathy for the poor husband, Michael Peterson, and identification with the twin tragedies of losing a loved one and being unjustly accused.
Nonetheless, even though the film was clearly sympathetic to the defense - chapter titles like `Prosecution Trickery' and `A Weak Case' leave no doubt - and granted much more time to their arguments and concerns, a gut feeling began to emerge: neither Michael Peterson nor his story added up. How on earth could a fall down the stairs cause those injuries, or result in that much blood? And if it was an accident, why did he take off his shoes? Try to wipe the walls clean? Lie to 911 about Kathleen breathing when she had clearly been dead for some time? Lie to the EMTs about being in the house just prior to the fall and saying it must have happened when he just went out to the pool for a few minutes? Change his story for the detectives when he realized the evidence told a different tale? Despite extensive opportunities to provide a detailed explanation and make a strong case for reasonable doubt - including a computer-simulated multiple-fall scenario - the defense's hired guns failed to persuade, perhaps because Peterson's own comportment was often so damning.
Long after seeing `The Staircase', I realized I was still bugged by the case. I began to read more about the trial, look at the evidence...and was shocked to find a record almost completely different from the film! What director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade left on the cutting room floor was a towering mountain of irrefutable forensic evidence pointing to Peterson as a vicious, calculating killer. Just the blood spatter evidence alone would have been more than sufficient to show that this was murder, committed by Michael: spray patterns high on the walls indicated that a long, thin weapon with the victim's blood on it was whipped around in the stairwell; some of the spatter was from blows where the victim's head was nowhere near the steps, stairlift, or track; fine spatter from struck blows - not footsteps, say - found its way upward into the crotch of Michael Peterson's shorts, proving he stood over her, striking the top of her head; his bloody footprint was stamped onto her pants leg; there were layers of fresher blood on drier blood, with later impacts spraying an area of the wall that had already been wiped down in a furtive attempt to clean up. The blood evidence strongly suggests that Michael thought she was dead and already had attempted to alter the scene when she revived unexpectedly - probably while he was in the kitchen - prompting a second, fatal attack at the foot of the stairs.
`The Staircase' doesn't exactly relate how it was almost immediately obvious to investigators that the scene had been staged; that attempts had been made to hide the bloody trail to the kitchen; and that in all this blood there was not a footprint, fingerprint, or other sign of an intruder (one microscopic feather aside, no evidence of a killer owl, the defense team's latest Hail Mary assertion). Furthermore, the autopsy findings were replete with complex, time-dependent trauma you don't hear about in the film, including defensive wounds; facial lesions indicating a struggle; the lack of congruence between the scalp lacerations, the steps, and the stairlift; and the presence of `red neurons' in the brain, indicating that significant blood loss occurred by 12-12:30am at the latest, over two hours before Peterson's highly suspicious 911 calls starting at 2:41am. There was also a curious lack of significant bruising on the hips or legs - an absence highly unlikely in the multiple-falls-down-stairs scenario proposed by the defense but consistent with the two theorized rounds of head and upper body assault (which seem to have included some punches and throttling as well).
Basically, it appears Peterson failed to understand that the timeline of his staged scenario - he claimed at first that the fall had just happened, a short time before the 911 call - wouldn't hold up. Nor had he imagined that a forensic meteorologist would easily disprove his second story - that he sat alone by the pool between 1-2am, wearing little more than a tee shirt and shorts in 50 degree December weather, and only discovered Kathleen when he came inside. Like most calculating murderers, especially narcissistic ones, he underestimated the investigators' skill and insight. To their trained eyes there was a world of difference between Kathleen Peterson falling down the stairs and being beaten to death over a period of an hour or two.
Artful and compelling though `The Staircase' is, I have to think that Lestrade, director of the righteously superb `Murder On A Sunday Morning', used this case to advance a point of view familiar to those who know his work: that Peterson was a victim of bias, a grieving husband prosecuted by narrow-minded people who loathed his politics, were intimidated by his intelligence, resented his success, and aimed to exploit his bisexuality in court. The fact is that Lestrade has said as much in interviews since the film's release. There can be no denying that the prosecution did play the sex card for all it was worth, but perhaps it would have been malpractice to do otherwise: the defense's opening statement was that Michael & Kathleen had an almost storybook, `soulmate' kind of marriage, which his compulsive gay tomcatting at the Y (uncovered by the defense team's investigator) seemed to belie. And the lethal confrontation could well have been triggered by Kathleen stumbling across some of Michael's explicit emails to gay escort `Brad' when she surprised her husband by asking to use his computer late that evening and proceeded to use his email account to receive a work-related document from a colleague. So, the defendant's sexual behavior was highly relevant to both prosecution and defense, and the jury was spared some of the more incriminating parts.
Politically, Lestrade and I probably have alot in common, and his other films have argued powerfully for justice, but unfortunately `The Staircase' dons the blinders again and again. If the director had truly aspired to fairness, he would surely have given the prosecution a chance to show how powerful the financial motive was - they did this quite effectively at trial, right in front of Lestrade's cameras. The film also sidesteps the way the prosecution demonstrated that a serious marital rift had started to unfold the Friday evening before Kathleen's death, with Michael's Saturday email reference to an argument they had while out for dinner, followed by Peterson hastily deleting thousands of gay porno pics from his computer that afternoon, just hours before the fatal events. He didn't delete them all, though, and the forensic data expert's testimony left no doubt that Kathleen had been using Michael's computer - a rarity, according to other testimony - just minutes before the neurological evidence shows she started to lose massive amounts of blood.
Lestrade stated some time later in an interview that Michael wouldn't have been prosecuted if he hadn't been gay. There is indeed a great deal of cruel prejudice in this world, and not just in Durham. As regards the Peterson case, however, the director's assertion is unsupported by the facts, which strongly suggest otherwise. No experienced investigator coming upon that scene at Forest Hills could possibly have failed to realize in short order that this was a brutal, cold-blooded murder, staged to look like an accident. And then to learn that Michael Peterson had also been the last person to see Liz Ratliff alive before she ended up at the bottom of stairs drenched in blood, years earlier...of course he would be a strong suspect. Lestrade should know that every single juror who was interviewed later insisted that there was never any disagreement or doubt on the panel that a murder had been committed, and that physical evidence like the 'red neurons' and blood spatter were incontrovertible. And Lestrade to the contrary, the juror interviews I've read suggest that jury members were far from narrow-minded about Peterson's sexual orientation - what seems to have mattered most to them about the defendant was his duplicitous behavior. One comes away with the impression that the panel was relatively thoughtful and conscientious.
Frankly, from a forensic standpoint, the Peterson case turns out to have been alot more straightforward than most people, including many of the film's reviewers, seem to think. That suggests to me that this riveting but deceptively selective film has misled many of us. I'm reminded a little of Oliver Stone's shamelessly truthy `JFK', a fictional film masquerading as fact. 'JFK' purported to answer the riddle of Dallas but actually led viewers about as far from the truth as it was possible to go, meandering off into the byzantine, self-aggrandizing paranoia-realm of the thoroughly discredited Jim Garrison.
As with that film, `The Staircase''s tragic flaw stems from a brilliant but self-righteous director's blindness to his own prejudices. The result: an unforgettable film whose dishonesty makes for an irony I can't quite get out of my mind.
67 of 77 people found the following review helpful
Fascinating but leaves out the facts2 Nov. 2005
- Published on Amazon.com
I watched the Peterson trial on Court TV in 2003, heard all the witnesses, and was convinced of Peterson's guilt. I rented this DVD the other day and watched all 6 hours compulsively. The inside look at Peterson, his defense team, and their strategy sessions was fascinating. But one huge problem: the filmmaker was so entranced by the defense case that he left out majorly important evidentiary facts. As another reviewer on this site indicated, the filmmaker left out the very evidence that the jury used to convict Peterson. Broken wineglass, his bloody footprint on her back, red neurons in her brain (indicating she'd been bleeding to death and unconscious for over 2 hours), ruptured hyaline cartilage in her throat (characteristic of attempted strangulation; not possible from a fall), blood spatter on the inner, wrong-side-out leg of his shorts, evidence that he tried to clean up the scene, and much more. Too bad for Peterson that there were 3 nurses and one clinical researcher on the jury. They weren't fooled by Henry Lee's assertion that 'there was too much blood for a beating'! Such an absurd statement. Interestingly, in one of the DVD's 'extra' features, the filmmaker complains about how unfair the American justice system is! Well, I'm complaining about how unfair this film is! I give it 4 stars because it was well done and I couldn't stop watching. But don't be taken in by this piece of propaganda. The real evidence against Peterson was overwhelming.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
In Pursuit of Truth and Justice18 Jan. 2010
- Published on Amazon.com
In December 2001, novelist Michael Peterson's wife, Kathleen, died. Peterson said that he found her at the bottom of a staircase in their North Carolina home. Eventually, prosecutors charged Peterson with her murder.
The Staircase covers familiar territory in the age of O.J., Robert Blake, and Phil Spector - the celebrity on trial. The murder charge shatters Peterson's life and causes his family to choose sides. The charges expose unflattering and embarrassing facts about Peterson.
The filmmakers have amazing access to Peterson. They film him at home and ask Peterson intimate questions. You feel like a voyeur while watching a man under almost-unbearable pressure. But you cannot stop watching. You watch because Peterson might do or say something that reveals whether he is a murderer.
The Staircase is pro-defense. Peterson's attorneys are intelligent, principled, and logical. The prosecutors and judge are bumbling, myopic, and possibly corrupt. One does wonder whether important aspects of the story are missing here.
I was very surprised at the Amazon reviewers who said that this film is boring. I watched with my wife and it held our attention for the full six hours. (We watched over several nights). By the end, we both were riveted to the screen.
Was justice done? I don't know. Based on what I have read at Amazon, I need to learn some more about the case. I recommend The Staircase to anyone who is interested in justice in the United States.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Doubt.12 April 2007
- Published on Amazon.com
The Staircase (Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, 2004)
When I can sit staring into space for a half an hour after watching a documentary stunned at the outcome, it's a good documentary. When I can do it when I already knew the outcome, we go from good to exceptional pretty fast.
Now, before I go anywhere with this: since it seems to be a bone of contention among those who debate the merits of this documentary, whether Michael Peterson is guilty or not is not the thrust of this documentary. Nor was it the thrust of the trial. Trials are not about guilt or innocence-- they are about the creation and destruction of reasonable doubt. A number of the combatants (and there really is no other word to describe them) who have flung words back and forth about this film have either forgotten this, or never knew it in the first place.
Lestrade, on the other hand, doesn't seem to care one way or the other. This is an outrageous larger-than-life cast of characters, none of whom seems in the least concerned with the fact that they're all involved in a murder trial. It's not quite as off-the-wall, character-wise, as Gates of Heaven, but it's up there. If you were going to write a satire of a courtroom thriller, you might well come up with characters like these-- the oblivious protagonist, accused of killing his wife in what may be the most improbable manner the prosecution could have chosen; the victim, whose death was improbable no matter what option you considered; the kids/stepkids, who practice a weirdly vacant form of denial; the prosecution, who resemble the shrieking-harridan Greek chorus in a badly-filmed musical; the defense, who come off as competent, but not much more so than the prosecution (the main difference between the two, Lestrade seems to be telling us, is that the defense has a sense of humor); etc. From the point of view of simply following this cast around like Errol Morris and letting them dig their own holes, The Staircase is an unqualified triumph. Who needs editing to make people look dumb? Just turn the camera on them long enough, they'll do it themselves.
For the first half of this, you will likely be as convinced as I was that Lestrade isn't even interested in the trial itself; he was having so much fun with these people that I wondered if the trial would have even opened by the time he'd finished filming. It does (and, in fact, it ends), and at that point, even if Lestrade was just chronicling, we, as viewers, have to concern ourselves with the trial. We have no choice; we're about to spend three hours engrossed in it. A number of us spent a whole lot more time engrossed in it as well, as it was carried, minute by minute, on CourtTV.
As far as the trial is concerned, Lestrade's thesis seems to be that no matter how strong the circumstantial evidence, the method of death advanced by the prosecution was so ludicrous as to create reasonable doubt by itself. This seems to be accurate, though Lestrade was certainly not above slanting the footage he ended up showing us to support his point of view. (Interestingly, in the exhaustive lists of forensic evidence not shown to the viewers are a number of things that would have strengthened, not lessened, Lestrade's case that there was reasonable doubt; if he was as biased as people claim when making this film, why were those things not left in?) Still, as with the trial, all the circumstantial and anecdotal evidence is just that. Michael Peterson may be guilty as sin, but unless you can conceive of this crime happening in the way it was presented by the prosecution, how can you not have reasonable doubt? And if you can conceive of the crime in that way, you have a far more vivid imagination than I do.
One way or the other, though, Lestrade has created an extremely entertaining, if somewhat jaundiced, look at the American legal system. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll puke. ****
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
A Compelling Documentary Miniseries: A Slanted, But Compelling, Peak Behind The Legal Curtains28 Nov. 2011
- Published on Amazon.com
When Jean-Xavier de Lestrade's comprehensive, problematic, and strangely exhilarating documentary miniseries "The Staircase" premiered on the Sundance Channel in 2004, I sat transfixed for all eight episodes. It is certainly a program that has stayed with me through the years, and I even survived the 2007 Lifetime network obligatory ripped-from-the-headlines interpretation "The Staircase Murders." Having been unavailable on DVD for some time, I'm glad to see it being reissued as this is surely one of the more fascinating examples of documentary filmmaking that you're likely to encounter. Lestrade, an Oscar winner for "Murder on a Sunday Morning," took on the 2001 highly publicized murder trial of author Michael Peterson to unravel the follies and foibles of the legal system. I saw an interview with Lestrade in which he claimed that once he met the larger-than-life Peterson, the direction the documentary would take started to formulate itself. And that's easy to believe, Peterson is a character you can't tear your eyes away from.
I have heard "The Staircase" decried as both a masterpiece and as irresponsible trash. It tends to elicit a very strong reaction as the piece itself, and Lestrade's point of view, seem pretty well substantiated. Does he feel Peterson was innocent of orchestrating the murder of his wife? It certainly seems that he does. And yet despite this obvious slant, the film itself won't necessarily make you a believer. Further research into actual events, should you be interested, also lead one to see that certain principle evidence vital to convicting Peterson gets little play in the documentary. But I don't think establishing guilt or innocence has anything to do with the brilliance of "The Staircase." Perhaps that's a controversial position, but the truths it does document are almost as frightening as any murder investigation. The movie allows its cast to create their own portraits, and this character study is as compelling and riveting as any fictional drama.
Peterson is a chilling and complicated persona whose very demeanor might make one leery. Others in the Peterson family are oddly vacant, others poised for vengeance. As presented, the prosecution's case becomes so extravagant and improbable--it's hard not to imagine a reasonable doubt acquittal. They so single-mindedly pile every strategy into the mix (a previous murder, fictional writing, sexuality, and other oddball theories). To watch the defense formulate plans about how they wish to build a rebuttal is never less than fascinating. But most interesting is how everything is just a construction, defense and prosecution. The truth seemingly is the least of anyone's concern when building a case. What's real? What's relevant? And does it matter?
This is, after all, the justice system at work. In this case, the trial was overcome by prejudices and pre-conceived notions. Guilt or innocence? I know what I believe after having researched this case in various venues. But, in the long run, Lestrade's film does more than just document a trial. It plays as grand theater and, thus, as an insightful and harrowing look into the jurisprudence system--it is almost essential viewing. Slanted? Biased? Sure. Fascinating? Disturbing? Absolutely. Definitely recommended to anyone with a special interest in the actual workings of a contemporary legal system--warts and all. About 4 1/2 stars. KGHarris, 11/11.