by Carter Glace
A documentary film about the history, nature and use of Tasers might not sound like the most riveting ninety minutes of cinema, yet “Killing Them Safely” is one of the best documentaries of the year. It is an expertly crafted, fully realized dive into a tense, fast growing crisis that in the wake of growing misuse of tools by law enforcement, becomes all the more fascinating.
One of the tricks that makes “Killing Them Safely” a great documentary is that it approaches its subject more like a narrative film, with a broad arc and growth that evolves its subjects by the end. In fact, the film starts out as a sort of rags to riches story, two brothers forming a business that would revolutionize police work and save themselves from financial ruin. Beginning with their work in the early 2000’s, the film follows Tom and Rick Swift as they invented the Taser. After their initial struggles, they seemingly made a breakthrough with an effective, non-lethal weapon. And in an era of growing police violence and gun-based death, the Swifts brought a godsend by offering a guaranteed means of ending conflicts without bullets.
But when reports of Taser-based deaths begin rolling, the story takes a much darker tone. As questions about police abusing the tool arise alongside the brother’s efforts to deny or overrule any reports, and the growing realization of how lacking and unregulated the brother’s testing phase was, the Swift’s go from starry-eyed idealists who wanted to save lives to shady business men denying the truth and endangering lives for profit. And that only works because the documentary commits so whole-heartedly to making Tasers seem like a miracle of science, and the Swift’s a triumphant story of entrepreneurialism. First time director Nick Berardini let’s the viewer get swept up in the same cheery excitement that made the Taser seem like a savior.
The amount of behind the scenes videos of Taser’s creation, countless past and present interviews, and the disturbing footage of the many arrests and deaths of tasered individuals creates an all encompassing look into the Swift’s and their ‘miracle tool’s’ fall from grace. It also does a great job explaining the science and force of the weapon in very clear terms, opening the film with a Taser taking down a bison.
And although no documentary can be called objective, the sheer amount of content allows for it to feel the definitive story. The creators become visually more unnerving and countless interviews are shown explaining in plain terms how deadly these tools can be. Despite raising the specter of police forces inevitably abusing potentially harmful tools, multiple officers are given their say, presenting the moral dilemma presented now that they realize they have been deliberately lied to about the weapon they were using.
“Killing Them Safely” is a near flawlessly crafted documentary that dives into its subject better than anything else, creating a bleak, troubling work of investigative filmmaking.
“Killing Them Safely” opened in select theaters on Nov. 27.
Carter Glace is a Highlighter Staff Columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org