directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
starring Michael Peterson, Michael Rudolf as themselves
Secrets. Everyone has at least one or two sordid tidbits to protect, but few people’s secrets lead to a murder charge. The Staircase, a remarkable “true crime” mini-series presented by the Sundance Channel in April, explores how one’s publicized private life — combined with mysterious physical circumstances — can turn an alleged accident into an alleged homicide.
Many viewers will be startled when they realize, after watching 15 minutes of episode one, that they’re not watching talented, yet unknown actors. Rather, Academy Award-winning French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Murder on a Sunday Morning) follows the real-life principals in the case of the State of North Carolina v. Michael Peterson shortly after Peterson’s 2001 arrest for the murder of his wife, wealthy Nortel executive Kathleen Peterson. Granted an amazing amount of access by Peterson and his veteran attorney, Michael Rudolf, de Lestrade’s cameras are rarely acknowledged by Peterson’s team or family members (understandably, the prosecution team and law enforcement allowed a smaller degree of access). Thankfully, they serve as unobtrusive flies on the wall as the extremely complicated and eyebrow-raising twists and turns of the case unfold.
Early on, both prosecutors and Peterson’s team argue that nothing is what appears to be. In episode one, Peterson, a Vietnam veteran and newspaper reporter-turned bestselling author, matter-of-factly explains how his wife fell down a staircase in their Durham mansion after the pair spent a typical evening talking and drinking wine.
The prosecution then takes a turn at bat, contending that Kathleen Peterson was beaten to death with an unknown object. They also paint a picture of Peterson as a war-story liar, and as a bisexual guilty of infidelity.
The sensitive issue of Peterson’s sexual preferences becomes a major component of the film, as the prosecution ventures that Kathleen Peterson’s discovery of her husband’s extracurricular activities led to her death.
After a search warrant uncovers gay pornography on Peterson’s computer, the novelist — who also was a two-time Durham mayoral candidate — freely admits to the dalliances. Rather than having relationships with men, Peterson explains, he has had casual homosexual encounters for years. Furthermore, he insists that his wife not only knew about it, she accepted it.
Peterson’s brother — perhaps his closest ally — backs him up, saying that he’s known about the writer’s “other side” since childhood.
The seesaw continues to tilt. When damning physical evidence is presented, Peterson’s forensics experts have a very plausible explanation. While Rudolf continues to shake his head at the prosecution’s insistence on Peterson’s guilt, the defendant subtly suggests a reason for a vendetta.
During a drive through Durham, he blasts the town’s political machine, alleging corruption and ineptitude; it turns out that Peterson, as a Durham newspaper columnist, once took more than a few shots at the police, the district attorney’s office, and city officials.
True-crime fans and CSI buffs will revel in the methodical mechanics of preparing a murder defense — at least a half-hour of the series is spent on the analysis of blood splatter, and there are more surprises captured throughout the film than a finely-tuned fictional thriller, including a suggestion that Peterson had done this sort of thing before.
Unfortunately, for the rest of the TV-viewing population, those twists and turns take place over the span of approximately six hours, as The Staircase is presented as it had previously been shown in Europe — in eight segments (In the U.S., Dateline NBC aired a two-hour version last year).
Indeed, the film makes a Law & Order two-parter seem frenetically paced in comparison, and is bound to frustrate those who are accustomed to swift TV resolutions. Some might also be stymied by de Lestrade’s decision not to explore Kathleen Peterson’s life in any detail, as well as the couple’s dynamics with a somewhat unusually constructed family: her daughter, Michael Peterson’s two sons by a previous marriage, and two young women who became his wards after their parents died. While the grown children (who become split along blood lines) speak about the incident, their family life before Kathleen’s death remains fairly one-dimensional.
Michael Peterson, of course, receives the most screen time. At the film’s end, however, viewers won’t have any firmer grasp of his enigmatic character than at its beginning. Early comparisons to the Klaus von Bulow case are inevitable, but Peterson is no icy aristocrat. Nor does he wear his thoughts and emotions on his sleeve. The defendant openly weeps for his wife more than once in The Staircase; on the other hand, he is able to laugh along with his defense team about some aspects of the case. As bisexuality is hardly a crime, it is unsettling to see a prosecutor nonetheless seize upon it, presenting Peterson’s sexual orientations in court as character flaws. Equally unsettling, though, is watching Peterson explain away a lifetime of infidelities.
After the final episode airs, most viewers will be unable to judge Peterson as a man or as a defendant, regardless of the jury’s verdict.
The Staircase debuts on the Sundance Channel April 4 at 9 P.M. Subsequent episodes air every Monday, with re-runs scheduled throughout the month.
The Staircase: www.sundancechannel.com/staircase