‘The Force’ Review: Documentary Looks at the Difficulties of Police Reform | Sundance 2017

     January 24, 2017


The battle between cops and the communities they police has come to the forefront of the national consciousness in the past several years. While most protestors don’t want to do away with police forces and police forces aren’t against all protestors, the dialogue between the two sides has become so strained that it feels like meaningful reform of a broken system has become all but impossible. Peter Nicks’ documentary The Force attempts to bridge the gap a bit by detailing the training and procedures cops follow on a daily basis as the Oakland Police Department tries to reform in the face of massive scrutiny. While the film thankfully never lapses into a “Blue Lives Matter” screed that ignores the legitimate complaints of opponents, it also never provides a satisfying explanation as to why police departments fail.

Beginning in the fall of 2014, Nicks was embedded with the Oakland Police Department as it tried to undergo reforms under the supervision of Police Chief Sean Whent. Through footage of Whent as well as classes at the police academy, Nicks shows police are well aware of public perception, especially that any wrongdoing by one officer is taken as wrongdoing by the entire department. As Whent tries to rebuild trust with the public, he seems to be making headway until a series of scandals threaten to unravel everything he’s worked for.


Image via Sundance

The Force is an important documentary if, for no other reason, it establishes a level of understanding with what cops go through on a daily basis. The film could probably stand as a miniseries, with episodes focused on training, policing, community outreach, etc. As it stands, The Force tries to pack in a lot of content into its relatively short runtime. It’s interesting to see cops at the academy debate the use of force and undergo training like inhaling tear gas so that they’ll know what it’s like if they ever have to deploy it. We also see Whent stress to the community the department’s priorities, and that while they’re not indifferent to robberies and non-violent crime, stopping violent crime must be the top priority given their limited resources. Whent also shows himself to be a strong advocate of transparency, especially with regards to the use of body cam footage.

Which is why the film becomes so frustrating in its final third as the department falls apart to darkly comic effect. (Spoilers ahead, I guess, although these events were reported in the news) Whent is forced to resign amidst a sexual misconduct scandal involving officers and an underage prostitute. If that’s not bad enough, the interim chief is dismissed after only a few days when it’s discovered that he’s been having an affair. A third chief is brought in only to also leave the role after only a few short days. The department goes through three police chiefs in nine days, and we’re left to wonder how close Whent came to achieving any of his goals when everything could crumble to darkly comic effect.


Image via Sundance

Despite spending two years with the Oakland Police Department, Nicks never seemed to obtain any answers on how the idealistic cops at the academy become cops who use excessive force or would solicit an underage prostitute. The stakes are made exceedingly clear at the academy and Whent is honest and straightforward with OPD’s priorities, so where was the disconnect? How did it all fall apart so badly and so quickly? The Force offers no answers, which means we’re left to wonder if reform is even possible if we don’t know the root causes of police misconduct.

Although the documentary promises an in depth look at modern policing in a major city, The Force feels like it only scratches the surface of what the subject matter requires. Perhaps it was naïve to think that a 90-minute documentary could adequately explore the complexities of policing, and while The Force provides a solid start, I hope that Nicks’ or others will continue his investigation because we need answers before we can start finding solutions.

Rating: B-

The Force does not currently have a release date.

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