From the New York Times, April 4, 2005:
Intellectual contortions -- namely the way lawyers, while devising a criminal defense, sidestep the subject of a client's actual guilt or innocence -- supply the drama in the astonishing documentary that begins tonight on the Sundance Channel with the first two of eight parts.
It may seem ludicrous to say that a movie running more than six hours is well edited, but ''The Staircase,'' by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, is. And not only is the editing prize-worthy, but the whole film is also so brilliantly conceived, reported, filmed and paced that you may come to wish it were twice as long.
That would be a perverse wish, but it's a perverse film, thick with shocks and subtle revelations, and it's hard to quit watching.
The documentary, which recently appeared in Britain on the BBC, chronicles the defense strategy of Michael Peterson, the novelist who in 2001 was accused of murdering his wife, who he said had fallen down a flight of stairs at their grand house in Durham, N.C.
Mr. de Lestrade was allowed to film what seems like every move of Mr. Peterson's lawyers, and they appear here scheming, brooding, dissembling, collecting evidence, hypothesizing and hazing the defendant. The leader is David Rudolf, a bearded, moderately distinguished, intermittently charming criminal-defense lawyer given to indignation, best-defense blather and hair-trigger grandstanding.
Like so many lawyers and prominent clients, Mr. Rudolf and Mr. Peterson develop an ominous interdependence, with the lawyer relying on the defendant for his career, and the defendant relying on the lawyer for his life. The differences in class and style between the two men regularly surface, but for the trial they must act like brothers.
Clearly, Mr. Rudolf is agitated, but also charged up, by the revelations about Mr. Peterson's past and private life that emerge and complicate the case. And Mr. Peterson -- as if he weren't complicit in the half-truths advanced in his own defense -- occasionally expresses high-minded concern about Mr. Rudolf: ''All he wants to do is win,'' Mr. Peterson says. ''Truth is lost in all of this now.''
What the men have in common is a manifest thrill at having Mr. de Lestrade's venerable cameras around; according to BBC press materials, both men were impressed by the résumé of the filmmaker, who won an Academy Award for his last courtroom documentary, ''Murder on a Sunday Morning.'' Mr. Rudolf likes to showboat and probably figures media attention will enhance his reputation. And Mr. Peterson has his own penchant for histrionics. He even composes a purple-prose treatment about the case, as if making notes for a novel.
Tonight, Mr. Peterson walks the camera through his version of events, emphasizing enviable details about the couple's bourgeois lifestyle. He could be giving a tour for a Town & Country photo shoot.
''The Staircase'' is most compelling if you have forgotten, or never knew, the facts of the North Carolina case or the outcome of the trial. The specific details are fascinating. But as a study of the evolution of a criminal defense, ''The Staircase'' is a masterpiece. The scenes of Mr. Peterson's lawyers circling warily around him, striving to anticipate and forestall the prosecution without ever once asking, ''Did you kill her?'' demonstrate exactly what's discomforting about American criminal justice: that sphere of courtroom theater and reasonable doubts, where truth, as Michael Peterson put it, is often lost.