Director Peter Nicks got more than he bargained for when he started working on "The Force," a lot more, and we are the beneficiaries.
Winner of a directing award at Sundance, this examination of the internal workings of the Oakland Police Department is the second of a projected trilogy of documentaries looking at that Northern California city's public institutions.
Nicks' first film, 2012's "The Waiting Room," was set in Oakland's Highland Hospital and won the Truer Than Fiction prize at the Independent Spirit Awards.
"The Force" takes us inside not a building but an organization, and a particularly fraught one at that. With remarkable access and fine observational skills, Nicks shows us the Oakland Police Department going through an unprecedented and unexpected series of problems.
In fact, when when things began to go south for the department in May 2016, Nicks (who does his own cinematography) and his team had already been editing for a year but suspended their work to stay on top of events as they unfolded.
The result, unusual in a documentary involving the police and the public, is a film that does not advocate for anything but the truth, one that aims to show what happens on both sides of an issue rather than coming down in favor of one or the other.
As we gradually find out, the police department and the city it serves have had a fraught relationship for decades, dating back to the days when the Black Panthers were active on the streets. More recently, for more than a decade, the department was going through a reform process linked to a federal consent decree and oversight.
Under the leadership of Chief Sean Whent, the police department had been trying to make progress for years, and had lately seemed to be succeeding.
Whent is the rare chief able to project genuine concern, and his methods appear to be working as "The Force" opens, with officer-involved shootings down and the chief working overtime at community meetings. All that history, however, was proving difficult to overcome. "The past stole your identity," Pastor Ben McBride, a community liaison to the department, tells officers, "and ran up an incredibly high bill."
McBride is not talking to just any group of officers, but a police academy class that "The Force" follows for a six-month period, watching the cadets' training and gasping with them as they find out first-hand what tear gas feels like.
"You all want to do the right thing, but when you hit the streets, things will be different," Capt. LeRonne Armstrong tells them. He reminds the rookies that one officer's actions can reflect on the credibility of the entire department, even the city.
That warning proves prophetic when Black Lives Matter protests gather momentum in Oakland. "The Force" is at its best depicting the gap between these opposing sides, showing how difficult trust is to gain and how easily it goes away.
As Whent astutely points out, everyone wants the police to be effective, but they are the government, and "mistrust of the government created this nation."
Though it by no means excuses abuses, "The Force" gives us a chance to see the police on their own terms, to watch what it is like at chaotic crime scenes when officers arrive and need to take control.
The movie spends a lot of time with a new police officer, Jonathan Cairo, as he goes about his job, trying to do the right thing as he confronts fleeing suspects, deranged bystanders and all kinds of situations that demand immediate responses and leave no leeway for error.
Then, in a way reality makes a habit of doing, the situation changes radically for the chief and his officers. Nicks is there to record it all and verify the truth of Whent's earlier statement that "it's a very difficult time in this country to be a police officer."
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway