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The Staircase


Step 1: Watch this true-crime masterpiece.

Rod Lott January 11th, 2012

Watching "Staircase" is like coasting down a steep San Francisco street on your bicycle and suddenly realizing you have no brakes: dangerous, discomforting and yet, strangely exhilarating.

thestaircase

It's that gripping — a miracle, considering the film is so long (six hours), it has to span two discs.

On Dec. 9, 2001, Nortel executive Kathleen Peterson died at the bottom of a narrow stairwell in her North Carolina home, presumably from a fall. She was found by her novelist husband, Michael, who called 911 in a panic. Something at the scene convinced the authorities foul play was afoot, and that the murderer had to be Michael. Despite family and friends pegging the Petersons as the perfect couple, Michael was charged with first-degree murder, and the case finally went to trial nearly two years later.

And Oscar-winning documentarian Jean-Xavier de Lestrade ("Murder on a Sunday Morning") was there for nearly every step, with exclusive access to follow both the prosecution (at least initially) and the defense. The process is enthralling, even before anyone steps into the courtroom.

For both de Lestrade and the viewer, the good luck didn't end with being allowed to shoot hundreds of hours of fly-on-the-wall footage — the case is like a mammoth onion, wrapped in more layers than anyone would estimate. I won't give away any of the twists — and there are many — but they prove the adage true: You can't make this stuff up!

Trust me: This isn't like being stuck watching a boring stretch of Court TV. By the final hour, the suspense had grown so great, I was feeling uneasy and inching toward nausea.

A work this thorough doesn't need any extras, but Docurama provide a couple, anyway. One offers some insight into how de Lestrade and his team even came to be involved in the project, while another provides an updated interview with Michael Peterson. But thanks to developments in December, that segment is already dated.

Do not Google the case to find out what those developments are. In fact, do not Google the case at all. Instead, watch "The Staircase," as absorbing as a documentary can be, and witness our justice system at work, both for good and ill. —Rod Lott
 
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