Director: Tiller Russell; Starring: Michael Dowd, Ken Eurell, Walter Yurkiw, Dori Eurell; Running time: 104 minutes; Certification: 15
Serpico would have a fit.
With Precinct Seven Five, director Tiller Russell tells us the extraordinary and shockingly true story of NYPD officer Michael Dowd, widely regarded as the most corrupt cop in America’s history. Through a series of candid interviews with the main players of the story: Dowd’s old partners, drug kingpins he had dealings with, police investigators breathing down his neck, as well as Dowd himself, we’re cleverly drawn into this compelling web of corruption and deceit that only grows more and more fascinating with each new revealing piece of information.
“Michael Dowd was a crook who ended up wearing a cop’s uniform.” As a thesis, this would be the crux of the argument. Was – or rather, is, Michael Dowd a villain, or was he simply acting out under extraordinary circumstances? Archive footage and police chief testimonies highlight the fact that New York in the 80s was an utter madhouse. Murder, rape, robbery, drug trafficking; it was all rampant. Inevitably, cops roaming the streets attempting to “keep the peace” were going to have a tough time of it, risking their lives every single day for a pitifully modest salary. Does this exonerate Dowd or any other officer for what he did? Does it give him a sliver of exemption?
What makes the film so rewarding is that Russell never tells us. He never wants to just hand us the answer, or his answer, on a silver plate; instead presenting a story from all angles by making use of the devices at his disposal (interviews, archive footage, reconstructions), which allows us to decide for ourselves through substantial evidence who the real culprits are. Of course, it’s hard argue against the fact that Dowd was indeed a crook. He put drugs on the streets and made money doing so. He exploited his position, made a mockery of his badge and failed those he swore to protect. Dowd himself admits as much.
But a villain? Perhaps the reticence to label him so harshly stems from how he comes across as his contemporary self; generally a decent enough guy who made some silly mistakes when he was young and naive and who knows he did wrong, making light of the situation by laughing at how ridiculous most of it was. In that sense, the film is actually rather kind to him. It certainly doesn’t ostensibly pit us against him, which feels odd but is just another tactic to conflict the viewer. But when you do catch yourself laughing along you’ll feel guilty. There’s nothing to laugh about, considering the majority of the anecdotes revolve around drug dealings, shootings and robberies. Yet the film uses humour prominently as a tool to unwind and cool down the audience. Without it, we might just become boiling pots of indignation at the heinous crimes Dowd and his comrades committed. Towards the end of his reign, Dowd was perfectly willing to sacrifice the life of a young woman to save himself. Incredible.
While the film doesn’t hit every single beat (a few of the lingering tear shots come off as a bit desperate and manipulative), it hits most of them spot on. Most notably, the way in which Russell handles one of the big reveals in Dowd’s story is seriously terrific; both funny and shocking in equal measure, and totally surprising (if you don’t know the whole story, I’d urge you to surprise yourself with the film rather than Google). Documentaries don’t always get a fair look in, especially during theatrical release, but Precinct Seven Five really deserves some attention. With all of its compelling and conflicting standpoints vying for our approval, this is an utterly engrossing, shocking and entertaining piece of filmmaking.
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