Review: American Trial: The Eric Garner Story — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

The case of Eric Garner’s death was never tried in court, but by summoning equal measures of inspiration and ingenuity, director Roee Messinger creates a fictional yet authentic version of it.

Actor Anthony Altier in a scene from American Trial
Actor Anthony Altieri with witnesses, friends, and family (Passion River Films)

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American Trial: The Eric Garner Story

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Rating: NR

Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

Director: Roee Messinger

Streaming through independent theater websites. Find the latest links at

It would be difficult to imagine a film more timely than American Trial: The Eric Garner Story — a daringly imaginative attempt to bring closure to one of the more notorious police brutality cases in recent history.

Garner was the Staten Island African-American man who, in 2014, was arrested for selling loose cigarettes on a sidewalk. He ended up face-down on the sidewalk, his neck in a choke hold, gasping “I can’t breathe” — three words that have become a haunting mantra in America’s latter-day civil rights movement.

A grand jury chose not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who tackled Garner and who, according to the coroner’s office, applied the choke hold that led to Garner’s death. So, aside from a civil suit against the city won by Garner’s family, no one paid a price.

That’s where director Roee Messinger comes in: Summoning equal measures of inspiration and ingenuity, he mounts a trial for Pantaleo on film, hiring actual defense attorneys and real-life prosecutors, and bringing in true-life witnesses to what happened that awful day on Staten Island. We meet Garner’s widow and his best friend — but we also hear testimony from genuine medical experts who differ on the cause of Garner’s death, and real ex-cops who speak urgently about the supreme difficulty of making split-second life-and-death decisions on the street.

Only one actor is employed in the cause: Bronx-born Anthony Altieri, who convincingly plays the accused as a guy who feels badly about what happened — but whose years on the beat have seemingly dulled his ability to respond emotionally to anything.

The result is a film that seems more like a nightly news summary of Pantaleo’s trial, documented by cameras mounted on the periphery of a nondescript urban courtroom. No mahogany tables or soaring windows here — the furniture is purely utilitarian, the lighting harsh, the confines almost claustrophobic. And ever-present on the soundtrack, like a minimalist musical score, clicks the keyboard of the court reporter, a touch that lends uncanny reality to the proceedings.

As the trial unfolds, Messinger seems to consciously eschew every common trope of courtroom dramas. The lawyers don’t perform Shakespearian orations — they read their opening and closing statements from laptops and pads of paper. The jurors seem to occasionally lose interest, or at least focus. There are no tight shots of sweating witnesses, no outbursts from the gallery, no stern lectures from the judge. Then there’s the perfunctory “Good morning” that each lawyer offers to every opposition witness — and their guarded “Good morning” response as they brace for the coming evisceration. This is the American trial process in all its banal beauty; the imperfect grunt work of imperfect people seemingly at odds — yet in a real sense working together to reach that elusive quality called Justice.

An American Trial: The Eric Garner Story won’t replace To Kill a Mockingbird or Inherit the Wind as the cinema’s quintessential courtroom drama, but it may well endure as the most authentic. And because it depicts a trial that never happened, it also serves as a solemn reminder that the denial of justice blocks closure not only for the aggrieved, but the accused, as well.

Featured image: Actor Anthony Altieri with witnesses, friends, and family (Passion River Films)

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