Film

Doc NYC 2013: 'A Fragile Trust' + 'Patrolman P'

A Fragile Trust and Patrolman P consider the parsing of stories -- what they can mean, who might be parsing, and what effects both teller and listener might have on them.


A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at the New York Times

Director: Samantha Grant
Cast: Jayson Blair, Howell Raines, Gerald Boyd, Seth Mnookin, Lena Williams, Macarena Hernandez, Robert Rivard, Howard Kurtz
Rated: NR
Studio: Gush Productions, ITVS
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-11-16 (DOC NYC)
Website
Trailer

Patrolman P

Director: Ido Mizrahy
Cast: Bill Phillips, Bob Geis, Kim Geis, Xaviera Hollander, Ralph Nieves
Rated: NR
Studio: Motherlode Productions
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-11-21 (DOC NYC)
Website
Trailer
"These were not normal lies. These were lies with details."

-- Jayson Blair, A Fragile Trust

"This is the place where truth is constantly tested, bended, concealed, and catalogued. What happened is not always what happened. It's what gets on the record that sticks and stands." He's describing the criminal courthouse in New York's Chinatown, and he's about to introduce the criminal case against one New York police officer, William Phillips, but New York magazine reporter Geoffrey Gray is talking too about the elusiveness of truth and trust, the ways that both are ever a matter of perception and desire.

This elusiveness -- and what it means for journalism in particular -- is at the center of two documentaries at DOC NYC 2013, Patrolman P and A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at the New York Times. The first, directed by Ido Mizrahy, is structured by Gray's efforts to understand "what happened" when two people were murdered on Christmas Eve in 1968, and Samantha Grant's film looks at Blair and the New York Times' mutual "meltdowns" a decade ago, when Blair was discovered to have plagiarized or fabricated at least 36 articles published in the paper. Each film considers a particular context -- the NYPD during the hyper-corruption of the 1960s and 1970s, the Times during its already-too-late pivot to digital formats -- but both also pose broader questions, concerning the irresolvable relations between truth and lies, community and identity.

Blair's story begins with these relations, at last in his recounting. Built on interviews with Blair and his colleagues as well as passages from his much-malign memoir (which he reads in voiceover, accompanying shots of New York Streets or subways, or sometimes sketchy animations of his drug use or flawed decision-making), A Fragile Trust sets up something like an investigation, motivated in part by Blair's own question, "Why?" It's the question that drives journalism, he suggests, and at least one reason he entered into the profession; for another, he says, "There were moments when I felt that I didn't fit in, but I would always find someplace where I did fit in: journalism just became one of those places."

During his interviews, Blair appears in close-ups; he's also rendered in a series of photos, as a child (the only black face or one of the only black faces in what he describes generally as a "middle class" environment), as a journalism student, as a member of the Times' aggressively diversified internship program, his expressions vague: whatever they may have seemed then, now these photos, ranging from grainy to smudgy, appear a series of puzzles, receding from definition even as you look at them.

Indeed, trying to suss out Blair becomes a kind of project for interview subjects here, as they ponder motives or causes, wonder who might be responsible or who knew what when. "My only impression was he was a little immature and a little star-struck that he was interning at the New York Times," says Macarena Hernandez, a member of that same group in 1998, and then the reporter whose copied work flagged Blair's deceptions in 2003. When Blair plagiarized her San Antonio Express-News story on Specialist Edward Anguiano, at the time missing in Iraq, the Times was alerted, as was Howard Kurtz, who made the story public while looking into Blair's past possible mistakes or infractions (that Kurtz's own reputation as a reporter has undergone its own shift speaks again to the tenuous nature of truth and trust).

As Grant poses questions from off-screen, her subjects -- Blair included -- offer answers that sometimes contradict one another: Seth Mnookin, for instance, is quick to call out Blair's suggestion that his mental illness went unnoticed in his workplace: "That's a silly suggestion on his part, that somehow it is employers' responsibility to know what was going on with him, when in fact he was doing his utmost to deceive them every step of the way."

When Grant re-raises the question of race in relation to the case, Times correspondent Lena Williams sees the connections immediately, comparing the Blair story to that of Stephen Glass: no one suggested Glass's plagiarism was a function of his whiteness, she notes, but, "The black person cannot be involved in anything without it being about race." But Times Deputy Managing Editor William Schmidt demurs, observing, "Something broke down, not because Jayson was black. Something broke down because the system didn't work." He seems unable to imagine that race is part of that system -- even when, perhaps especially when, players might be white.

A Fragile Trust grants multiple players chances to reflect on that system, as well as their parts in it, including the two editors who lost their jobs as a result of the case, Howell Raines and Gerry Boyd. But none of them comes up with an explanation that might "stick". Rather, each has his or her own understanding, some more compelling than others, but n none conclusive. But even if the "why" for Blair remains unknown, which is not to say unknowable, Hernandez makes an observation that resonates, articulating his betrayal as one of daunting dimensions, because, she says, journalists live and work by trust: "People give it to you so freely," she says, regarding those who tell reporters their stories. But as you watch these professionals speak, men and women who make stories out of trust, you also realize that skepticism is part of that process too, theirs and yours.

Patrolman P (2013)

The story of Bill Phillips lays out the process in another way. As much as Gray comes into it thinking that he wants to believe his subject, he comes away with less certainty, less trust. The Phillips case was infamous at the time: after being caught on film taking bribes, this high-living cop found himself conscripted into the service of the Knapp Commission, investigating corruption in the NYPD (the film references Frank Serpico with an image montage, reminding you of the sensational excesses of the department and the sometimes earnest, sometimes equally excessive efforts to contain them). As Phillips testifies in archival footage, he looks every bit the deceitful type his detractors claim, slick and arrogant. The man Gray meets with now is, by contrast, an elderly man (in his 70s), working in prison on his and other inmates' appeals, diligent, focused, bright.

The interviews with Phillips set up a problem that is similar to that in A Fragile Trust, in that Gray and other subjects (and you and the film) must contend with a self-professed and charismatic liar. Patrolman P suggests that a lie detector test might resolve questions, even as it also delivers Gray into an increasingly tenuous position: "The closer we got to he polygraph, the more I felt stuck in the middle," he says, "We were all looking to the polygraph as a way to figure out what really happened." If the film goes through the many reasons that Phillips might have been framed for the murders of a pimp and prostitute in 1968, it also offers the possibility that he was capable of such an act, and certainly that he was and is capable of not telling the truth. While Gray concedes that Phillips had by now, after decades in prison, "gotten used to not being believed, it's about trust, not facts."

Like A Fragile Trust, Patrolman P considers such parsing of stories -- what they can mean, who might be parsing, and what effects both teller and listener might have on them. And like Grant's, Mizrahy's film comes to no clear conclusion. It's not that facts can constitute a truth, as these are always beheld by someone. It's that truth itself is a fiction. And journalists, so famously devoted to the pursuit of truth, negotiate this fiction every day.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Dancing in the Street: Our 25 Favorite Motown Singles

Detroit's Motown Records will forever be important as both a hit factory and an African American-owned label that achieved massive mainstream success and influence. We select our 25 favorite singles from the "Sound of Young America".

Music

The Durutti Column's 'Vini Reilly' Is the Post-Punk's Band's Definitive Statement

Mancunian guitarist/texturalist Vini Reilly parlayed the momentum from his famous Morrissey collaboration into an essential, definitive statement for the Durutti Column.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

What Will Come? COVID-19 and the Politics of Economic Depression

The financial crash of 2008-2010 reemphasized that traumatic economic shifts drive political change, so what might we imagine — or fear — will emerge from the COVID-19 depression?

Music

Datura4 Take Us Down the "West Coast Highway Cosmic" (premiere)

Australia's Datura4 deliver a highway anthem for a new generation with "West Coast Highway Cosmic". Take a trip without leaving the couch.

Music

Teddy Thompson Sings About Love on 'Heartbreaker Please'

Teddy Thompson's Heartbreaker Please raises one's spirits by accepting the end as a new beginning. He's re-joining the world and out looking for love.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Little Protests Everywhere

Wherever you are, let's invite our neighbors not to look away from police violence against African Americans and others. Let's encourage them not to forget about George Floyd and so many before him.

Music

Carey Mercer's New Band Soft Plastics Score Big with Debut '5 Dreams'

Two years after Frog Eyes dissolved, Carey Mercer is back with a new band, Soft Plastics. 5 Dreams and Mercer's surreal sense of incongruity should be welcomed with open arms and open ears.

Music

Sondre Lerche Rewards 'Patience' with Clever and Sophisticated Indie Pop

Patience joins its predecessors, Please and Pleasure, to form a loose trilogy that stands as the finest work of Sondre Lerche's career.

Film

Ruben Fleischer's 'Venom' Has No Bite

Ruben Fleischer's toothless antihero film, Venom is like a blockbuster from 15 years earlier: one-dimensional, loose plot, inconsistent tone, and packaged in the least-offensive, most mass appeal way possible. Sigh.

Books

Cordelia Strube's 'Misconduct of the Heart' Palpitates with Dysfunction

Cordelia Strube's 11th novel, Misconduct of the Heart, depicts trauma survivors in a form that's compelling but difficult to digest.

Music

Reaching For the Vibe: Sonic Boom Fears for the Planet on 'All Things Being Equal'

Sonic Boom is Peter Kember, a veteran of 1980s indie space rockers Spacemen 3, as well as Spectrum, E.A.R., and a whole bunch of other fascinating stuff. On his first solo album in 30 years, he urges us all to take our foot off the gas pedal.

Film

Old British Films, Boring? Pshaw!

The passage of time tends to make old films more interesting, such as these seven films of the late '40s and '50s from British directors John Boulting, Carol Reed, David Lean, Anthony Kimmins, Charles Frend, Guy Hamilton, and Leslie Norman.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.