The Central Park Five is the first Ken Burns documentary to score a proper theatrical release and the shortest film he’s made since 2003’s Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip, which “only” ran 107 minutes rather than, say, 15-½ hours. That doesn’t mean it’s any less exhaustive than The Civil War or Baseball; it just has a more manageable subject. Its focus is the 1989 Central Park jogger case, in which one Trisha Meili, while on a run, was assaulted and raped. New York City was on an upswing, after a lengthy down period, and the reminder that it was still very dangerous snowballed the occurrence into a national frenzy. People demanded a head, and they got five: Teenagers, four black, one Hispanic, were rounded up, intimidated, tried and convicted of the crime.
So potent was the hysteria that the actual assailant–convicted rapist Matias Reyes–was caught for a different crime then released, committing other deeds while the fall guys were demonized in the media and by anyone with a microphone. (The film is also a handy reminder that Donald Trump was always a total penis.) The NYPD and those on the prosecution refused to cooperate with Burns and his co-directors Sarah Burns and David McMahon. That’s a bit understandable as the case makes them look like incompetents, or worse: Even after the boys were cleared, prosecutor Linda Fairstein tried to block the vacating of their convictions.
It does, however, leave a hole, if not in the reportage then in the potential exploring of deeper issues. No matter how much information is crammed into The Central Park Five’s two hours, it rarely delves deeper into the ideas it brings up. It only touches on human error in piecing together the truth, on the impossibility of the truth. Even the handling of the racial aspect, with society rallying against minorities alleged to have assaulted a white woman, is only slightly deeper than superficial. "That’s for the viewers to discuss afterwards" is the idea, which is fine. Burns is a populist documentarian but not one who peddles comforting lies. Like a lot of his work, the only “comforting” idea in The Central Park Five is the reminder that humans, even the best of us, are reliably and sometimes catastrophically flawed.