'The Return,' 'Command and Control' and 'Reset' are Tribeca doc standouts


Over its 15-year span, the Tribeca Film Festival has grown to the point where it's difficult to view every available movie. Fortunately, a healthy proportion of entries will find some further form of distribution, either on theatrical, VOD or cable platforms.

This is especially helpful for documentaries, which struggle to find viewers in a marketplace dominated by HBO and PBS. Recent success stories in the genre have centered around a few basic themes. Documentaries about a "Great Person," for example, or ones tied to a social issue or past incident. The strength of Tribeca's programming staff is its ability to find worthy movies that don't necessarily fit into familiar templates.

The Return could be seen as a social-interest piece, but directors Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway turn it into something more. The movie examines the response to California's "Three Strikes" law, which imposed a life sentence for almost any crime after two previous serious or violent convictions. In 2012, almost 20 years after "Three Strikes" was imposed, voters passed Proposition 36, which shortened these life sentences that affected some 10,000 prisoners.

The directors use Mike Romano and Susan Champion of the Stanford Justice Advocacy Project, a "reentry" program, to explain the problems of integrating prisoners back into society. Courtroom scenes show Judge William C. Ryan determining the fates of convicts who thought they would never leave prison alive.

But what sets The Return apart from typical issue documentaries is the directors' focus on individual prisoners. Kenneth Anderson was sentenced to life for purse-snatching. Released after 14 years, he was a stranger to his four children and ex-wife Monica Grier. A warm, friendly bear of a man, he also has a limited education and a drug problem. The directors follow Anderson as he tries to apply to school, get a job, win back his children's affections, and strike a balance with Monica.

Bilal Chatman was serving a life sentence for selling drugs to an undercover cop when he was released under Prop. 36. "I try to stay away from things that will get me hurt," he says, and the directors show just how difficult that is for someone who commutes for hours to an entry-level job while juggling mandatory visits to his parole officer. Anderson and Chatman personalize a story that could otherwise feel abstract, forcing viewers to think about the individual consequences of a harsh legal system.

The Return is competing in the "Documentary Competition" program at Tribeca, and will be screening May 23 on the PBS series “POV.”

Director Robert Kenner's Emmy-winning Food, Inc. was inspired by author Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. The two are back together on the fascinating, chilling Command and Control. Based on the 2013 book of the same name, the documentary is a technically audacious restaging of an accident in Damascus, Arkansas, on September 18, 1980.

The accident took place in an underground bunker and silo housing a Titan II missile. Its nuclear warhead was more powerful than all the bombs detonated in World War II—combined. As Kenner and Schlosser show in meticulous research and fascinating archival footage, accidents involving nuclear weapons were not uncommon. One declassified document suggests there were more than 1,000 between 1950 and 1968.

What took place that September night in Damascus rivals any thriller Hollywood could concoct. There were no steps in place to respond to the accident, no checklist of repairs, no solution. And, as it turns out, the officer ultimately in charge of deciding what to do had been on the job for three months, and had no previous experience with nuclear warheads.

Command and Control offers many lessons, like the inadvisability of giving young, untrained soldiers dangerous tasks and then blaming them when something goes wrong. "In this case, it's kids with nuclear weapons," Schlosser said in an interview after the premiere screening. "In other cases, it's kids with fighter planes or kids with tanks or it's kids on the battlefield. Even to this day, we're talking about nineteen-, twenty-year-old kids doing maintenance work on nuclear weapons."

"I think that some of the people we've dealt with in the Air Force, they're as frightened of this as anyone," Kenner added. Referring in part to the aging, increasingly obsolete system of nuclear deterrence, he said, "One of the real challenges of this film, and one we want to tell as much as anything, is that people have stopped thinking about this. It's stopped being a concern."

And while more safeguards are in place, there's nothing to suggest that a similar accident might not happen again. "They said it's a one-in-a-million shot," Kenner noted about a fuel cap that damaged the missile. But when they were re-enacting the incident for the documentary, "We dropped it twelve times and hit it six."

"These accidents continue to happen," Schlosser said. "The Minuteman missile, which is the missile we now have in the ground, was first put into duty in 1970, and was supposed to be taken out of duty in the early 1980s."

Command and Control is screening as part of the Tribeca Spotlight program. It will be released theatrically on September 14 prior to broadcast on PBS.

Also in the Spotlight program, Reset (Relève) follows choreographer and dancer Benjamin Millepied in his inaugural season as the dance director of the Opéra National de Paris. Directors Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai could have fashioned a softball profile of Millepied, a Jerome Robbins protégé and former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet.

Or they could have concentrated on the show-biz gossip surrounding Millepied, who married Natalie Portman after choreographing Black Swan and starring with her in the movie.

Reset is instead a deeply focused, no-nonsense look at the creative process. Millepied has 39 days to choreograph a 33-minute ballet based on a new work by composer Nico Muhly. He not only has to invent and refine the steps, but train and rehearse 16 young dancers; oversee set construction, costumes and myriad other details associated with the production; deal with unions, the board of directors and fluctuating finances; and find his way around the company's gorgeous but often cramped and obsolete facilities.

The rehearsals in Reset are fascinating, with Millepied trying to transfer his remarkable skills to tense, nervous dancers before they can even hear the score. Viewers can see and appreciate the minute adjustments, the evolution of ideas, the give-and-take of collaboration unfolding right before their eyes.

This is artistry at the highest levels of skill. Reset documents in fascinating detail the work, pain, tension, fear and pressure it takes to mount a world-class production.