Overview: A seven-part documentary series examines cases involving alleged coerced confessions from all sides of the justice system. Netflix; 2017; Not Rated; varying runtimes.
Behind Closed Doors: For many years, the police interrogation room was off limits to the public. You were unlikely to ever see footage of the process of questioning a suspect unless you were on a jury or in that precarious situation yourself. But something changed in recent years. Scratch that; many things changed. For one, a viewing audience has demanded greater authenticity in its entertainment. I’m sure I’m not alone in watching an old Law & Order repeat and noticing when they don’t Mirandize a suspect. Gritty scripted dramas like The Wire and Southland and reality shows like The First 48 and—whether they like it or not—Cops, have often shown police work to be flawed, biased, and coercive. All of which reflects a reality that American minorities have known for years, and that cell phone, dash cam, and body cam footage is finally validating.
I don’t think The Confession Tapes, now available for streaming on Netflix, is a program that would have been made ten, or even five years ago. We weren’t ready. Interestingly, Netflix itself paved the way with its Making a Murderer documentary in 2015. Regardless of whether you believe Steven Avery’s guilt, the confession given by an underage and intellectually naive Brendan Dassey—obtained without a parent or attorney present—should trouble you. The Confession Tapes is, in many ways, a narrative sequel to that earlier documentary. The eight-part series examines seven different cases (the first is a two-parter) where the accused has maintained his innocence despite having given the police a confession. If you’ve often wondered why anyone would confess to something they hadn’t done, this series is an eye-opener.
Interrogation Technique: Each of the episodes I previewed follow a similar structural arc. You’re immersed in the story of a murder in media res; a 911 call is being made, a witness is describing what they’ve seen, a detective is explaining his first moments at the crime scene. Each episode then methodically retraces the events leading up to the murder, often interviewing the accused as well as victims’ family members, police detectives, and lawyers on both sides of the case. It’s an interesting narrative choice because it forces the viewer to make snap judgments about whom they trust. The individual detectives interviewed do not always seem like the bad guy, the accused do not always appear innocent. In fact, some are challenging to root for despite knowing how stacked against them the system is. There is no narrator, only title cards giving you a sense of time. While it’s easy enough to discern where the accused is now, being interviewed over an echoing prison phone or in their own living room, it doesn’t detract from the viewing experience. There are few gotcha moments and stories are not always resolved as these cases ping pong through the legal system. Instead, you’re given an inside look at the psychology behind police interviewing, some of it technically legal, much of it morally questionable.
One of the accused interviewed for his story likened his coerced confession to being “mind raped” and it’s easy to see why. His sense of trust is forever shaken and, though he is free, his sense of freedom feels tenuous at best. The series does a fantastic job of show-don’t-tell with its character studies. At one point, a detective is recounting the timeline of a case, part of which hinged on information leaked to the media, when he slips up and essentially concedes the police were responsible for the leak. He quickly corrects himself, beginning again as if it had never happened, perhaps assuming the filmmakers would just edit it out. They don’t, but neither do they belabor it. Whether you notice it, whether you find it noteworthy, is down to your interpretation. I remember a tweet several years ago where someone remarked that they hated going to George Clooney movies because it felt like the viewing equivalent of being chased down and asked to sign a petition. Perhaps because of the voyeuristic nature of watching these interrogations without being told how to feel about them (editorial framing aside)The Confession Tapes feels like a different kind of experience. It may not change the way you live your life, but I suspect it will change your reaction to news of a confession. In this small way, we as viewers are now privy to the justice system’s worst-kept secret: Few things are ever certain.
Overall: By covering all sides of each story while remaining steadfastly focused on the accused, The Confession Tapes presents its evidence in a straightforward and unfiltered way that does justice to its important subject matter.
Featured Image: Netflix