Of the many twists and turns in "The Central Park Five," a stirring documentary of injustice in an infamous New York rape case, the biggest surprise may come when the credits start and Ken Burns is listed as one of the co-directors.
This electric story is a world away from the quiet, reflective sweeping histories for which Burns has become a brand.
For a change, the interviews aren't with tweedy academics but with the people who actually lived the story Burns and his co-directors his daughter Sarah Burns (an investigative journalist) and her husband, David McMahon (a co-producer on his father-in-law's films, "The War" and "The National Parks: America's Best Idea") tell so compellingly.
Here are the details everyone may remember from the night of April 19, 1989: While some 25 teens were committing crimes in New York's Central Park, a 28-year-old investment banker was brutally raped and beaten. New York Police quickly announced that five teen suspects had been arrested, and the media in New York and nationwide introduced the term "wilding" to describe the teens' violent pack behavior.
The movie begins not with those five, but with a serial rapist who confessed to the crime years after the five teens were convicted. Then we meet the five: Antron McCray (who only gave an audio interview), Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise. Each tells a similar story of being in the park, committing comparatively minor crimes but having no idea that a woman was raped. Then, after hours of police interrogation, they each are coerced into fingering the others in videotaped confessions, in the vain hope that they finally would be allowed to go home.
The filmmakers interview journalists who covered the case, a psychologist who details the mind games at work in the interrogation room, and even then-mayor Ed Koch. (Notably, no New York Police Department official, past or present, would sit for an interview.)
These interviews are intercut with striking new footage (by Ken Burns' regular cinematographer, Buddy Squires) and stirring archival footage, as New York threatened to explode over the case and the usual suspects including a fatter Al Sharpton and a thinner Donald Trump came out of the woodwork.
But the most powerful passages of this bracing documentary are the raw words of the five then-teens, people whose lives were interrupted for years because of a lie the police insisted they tell and to which they naively signed their names. "The Central Park Five" is a chilling reminder that the first draft of history is often just that, a draft, and some rewrites take longer than others.
'The Central Park Five'
Documentarian Ken Burns leads a team that reveals the riveting story behind five teens wrongly accused of an infamous rape.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday.
Rating • Not rated, but probably R for descriptions of violence and rape.
Running time • 119 minutes.