There’s a scene about two-thirds of the way through director Tiller Russell’s fantastic documentary “The Seven Five” about the exploits of Michael Dowd, New York’s dirtiest cop in the 1980s, that serves as a fascinating and slightly heartbreaking testament to his character. In this scene, he gives us a few glimpses into the kind of cop he wishes that he was and ultimately isn’t. For a moment or two I wished that he had been that guy, even at the cost of such a rip roaring narrative.
I want to be clear in saying that Dowd is truly rapturous to listen to, but he’s never portrayed as someone you should root for.
The Venables Murder
Robert Venables, a plainclothes police officer has taken a bullet to the brain, and Dowd is upset that one of his brothers in blue lays dying. He asks Alex Diaz, a crime kingpin whose operations he’s been covering up, to find out who murdered Venables. Dowd later reveals that he would’ve done the footwork himself, but “he didn’t know the guy.” Dowd may have aspired to be a better cop, but that he isn’t deluded into thinking he ever actually will be. He doesn’t honor the badge for himself, so why ever would he do it for a stranger?
Is this his own personal form of persecution? When you’ve been nobody’s hero for so long, is there even a point in balancing the ledger?
Diaz never reveals what (or if) he did anything for Dowd on the Venables matter. He lets it hang in the wind. I assume that this is because it sounds suspiciously like a personal favor and their relationship is a business relationship, nothing more. Not even the criminals like Dowd.
In great fiction, this would be a moment of truth that allowed our subjects a chance at redemption. In great non-fiction, it’s still a moment of truth, but Dowd is irredeemable. Even so, he isn’t an evil man. He’s just in deep, and he has given over to whatever may happen.
Because of this, he seems to live a pretty stress-free life. Other than some bags under his eyes, he looks great. He’s so candid, it seems impossible that he ever worried about anything. Like his many cohorts, they seem to have aged well because they’ve embraced the notion that they’re lucky to have escaped from this period with their lives.
From top to bottom, “The Seven Five” is populated with a fascinating assemblage of characters that are very important to Dowd’s journey.
His partner, Ken Eurell, who is moved to have a crisis of conscience late in the story, but until then he enjoys the spoils of robbing drug dealers, protecting them, and generally working over every criminal they meet.
Chickie, who resigns before catching fire and helps Dowd in many robberies.
There is also the skull crusher, Walter Yurkiw (all of 6’5″).
In one impressive story, Dowd talks about confronting the head of a Salvadoran gang known as La Compania, who made the mistake of putting out a hit without knowing what his target looked like. The way Dowd handles it is understated and masterful, and he gets the desired result. These are Dowd’s streets.
Diaz himself is another fascinating character. He’s well groomed and clearly trying to hide his age with hair dye but there’s an intelligence and impeccability about him. His Puerto Rican lilt is to die for. There’s something to be said for how intoxicating the voices of the bad guys can be. Diaz especially makes every unsavory deed he divulges go down like a fine brandy.
It plays like a thriller
At heart, “The Seven Five” has all the same narrative beats you’d expect from a police thriller: the first taste of crime that spirals out of control; the blue wall that protects fellow cops no matter how bad they may be, because it’s understood that out on the streets you’ll inevitably need them; the incorruptible few who ultimately and righteously become the unsung heroes.
Despite having only talking heads and archival evidence photos to tell the story, Tiller is still abel to create a palpable sense of dread and tension, while also having something even a master like Sidney Lumet doesn’t always get in his procedurals: the unvarnished truth. There are also that opportunities for redemption along the way, but in Dowd’s story, they only serve to underscore the reality of human folly. As a bonus, Russell uses songs by the Rolling Stones on the soundtrack that inject the film with real energy.
I don’t mean to root for the bad guys, but I love the story, there’s a tenacity to these guys that not a lot of people have. Seeing that in action works for me. Being bad is good for business, and nobody has made being bad look quite so good as Michael Dowd.