‘True Conviction’ Tribeca Review: True-Crime Doc Takes Dark Twists

The story of three exonerated prisoners who work to free other unjustly imprisoned men doesn’t always take viewers where we want to go

One of the cardinal rules — and sometimes, biggest challenges — in nonfiction filmmaking is that when you set out to follow real people, you often don’t know where they’re going. Sometimes, real life will lead you in unexpected directions that can make for a great film; other times, it will stubbornly refuse to give you the satisfying ending that would make your movie soar.

The filmmakers of “True Conviction,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, definitely had to deal with some of the latter. If the movie is perhaps less satisfying because it denies us the conclusion we want, it is a tribute to director Jamie Meltzer that his film nonetheless stands as a testament to the art of pragmatism, to working toward an acceptable resolution when the ideal one is denied you.

Meltzer did that, and so did the people he chronicles. Christopher Scott, Johnnie Lindsey and Steven Phillips are former prisoners from Texas, all of whom spent years incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit before being exonerated and freed. They now make up an investigative team that helps other prisoners at a time when hundreds of unjustly convicted prisoners were freed in Texas alone over the last few years.

The three men are dogged, tenacious investigators, and the film follows them as they work on the cases of a man who’s spent decades on Death Row after being convicted of three murders on the basis of a factually inaccurate confession that was likely obtained under questionable circumstances, and another who’s spent 40 years in prison for a robbery almost certainly committed by somebody else.

Given the setup, viewers could be forgiven for thinking they know what’s coming: investigations, revelations, exonerations …

It’s not a major spoiler to say that it doesn’t happen that way. “True Conviction” takes twists and turns and goes into dark areas, both in the lives and work of the investigators and the people for whom they’re fighting. There are no simple answers here; if you can’t win the way you want to win, you try to find a way to secure a smaller victory.

That makes for a more troubling and perhaps less conventionally satisfying film, one that identifies a trend — the increasing exoneration of innocent men unjustly imprisoned — and then doesn’t really deliver any examples of it.

But Meltzer, who followed the three men for five years to make the film, has a powerful story to tell that reverberates in a time of accelerating exonerations and, if the courts allow it, accelerating executions. The straightforward style he uses, mixing fly-on-the-wall reportage with talking heads, works for the subject matter and fits an Independent Lens/PBS production.

And just as Scott, Lindsey and Phillips change strategy as events unfold and complications arise, so Meltzer adjusts with those events and finds a way to depict an important fight that often as not doesn’t deliver a clear triumph.

It’s real life, where you can’t always get what you want. But you do get stories that need to be told, and “True Conviction” is one of those.