In its earliest screen incarnations, The Interrupters is said to have run as long as 165 minutes, forty minutes longer than the version ultimately given wide release (or, you know, "wide release"), and while even the two-hour version of the story doesn't really need that much running time to make its thematic points, I should wonder if a longer Interrupters might be quite a wonderful thing. For the individuals we meet in this documentary are so fascinating and engaging, and their work so important and compelling, that it seems that the more time we get to spend with them the better; in point of fact, more than once I found myself wishing that there was a weekly series about the titular interrupters, which would at once solve two of the biggest issues with the film: two hours is too little time to fully explore every nook and cranny that comes up along the way, and two hours is an awfully long time to spend watching such sobering, dark material at one stretch.

Inspired by an article written by producer Alex Kotlowitz, the film documents the period from summer 2009 until early fall 2010 in Chicago, Illinois, where a local group called Cease Fire is dedicated to reducing violence and death in the city's poor and under-developed neighborhoods. One of the ways this is done is through the employment of Violence Interrupters, men and women who come from the very same violent background that they are now dedicated to fighting, the idea being that someone who was brought up in that environment and was able to transcend the cycle of violence begetting further violence is better able to communicate with the people they're trying to help than e.g. some well-off, highly-educated white kid from a nice suburb. And it works, apparently, for at one point we hear a passing reference to the figure that in areas with this program in place, violent deaths decreased by 40%. Whether this is over a month, a year, a decade, isn't quite made clear, because The Interrupters isn't an advocacy doc, except in the loosest way - plainly, director Steve James (who previously studied the poorer quarters of Chicago in Hoop Dreams) believes in the mission of Cease Fire, and his movie exists to show the world all of that group's good work, but there's no sense whatsoever that he's proselytising. This is an observational movie, not a prescriptive one.

And why not, when the observing is this good. A great many faces pass by over the course of the film, but the three that we spend the most time with are Ameena Matthews (the daughter of one of the most prominent ganglords of the last half-century), Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra, ex-cons and gangbangers who have returned to the neighborhoods where they grew up to do good. James uses these three in two ways: as a vehicle for exploring the lives and the world of the people they help, and as case studies in how it's possible for the human being, a bloody-minded and aggressive animal if there ever was one, to do what is right and not what is easy, and to act with the highest level of dignity and respect for others and themselves. Their mission is twofold: first, they inveigle themselves into the lives of people who ask for help, acting as a combination of sponsor, big brother or sister, parole officer, and guidance counselor; second, they put themselves right there on the street, in the middle of the violent conflicts that crop up like dandelions, helping the people waving guns at one another to see that there is another way to live than trading eye-for-eye and death-for-death. The courage and strength of character it takes to dedicate themselves to this mission is palpable even though James never once tries to foreground it or insist on their heroism.

They're three great characters, is the thing, especially Matthews, whose acerbic, no-bullshit personality does not mask so much as it flavors a love of humanity and faith in the potential of people to be better than the sum of their flaws and mistakes. She's inspiring not only because of her willingness to put herself on the line, but because even with everything she has seen - and done! - she seems genuinely certain that people are ultimately redeemable; she is the great humanist of 2011 cinema in this regard, and she dominates The Interrupters and gives it that same spirit of optimism.

James lucked out in that, during the time span of his film, Chicago's epidemic of violence became a national cause late in 2009 following the death of 16-year-old Derrion Albert, caught on video and uploaded to YouTube. It gives the film a sense of timeliness, and something of a framework; the director is able to use occasional interludes with the people in the outside world mulling over the weighty problem of urban violence both to give The Interrupters a tie to a culture and society "bigger" than the south side of Chicago, and to point out (though James is not at all dogmatic in this direction) the relative lack of success of talking with furrowed brow about The Problems compared to actually going out and doing what works, what is right, and what is hard to do. The film isn't really looking to be about all of humanity, just about the individuals involved, but the filmmaker is smart enough to take advantage of a situation when it presents itself, and the results feel both universal and deeply specific: as the people touched by the interrupters move in and out of the film, we get a sense both of their individual suffering (a mother who is scared of her own grown sons and has moved away without letting them know where she's living now; a teenage girl convinced that she'll never be able to transcend her background and desperate to have somebody prove otherwise), and the ways in which they stand in for people at large; these stories are maybe not representative of the thousands of lives that we don't see, but they are certainly suggestive of what some of those lives may be like.

For as engaging as this all undoubtedly is, it's not flawless: James second-guesses himself with a far too pat and fuzzy epilogue, and the film's focus and pacing (if that's the right word for something that ultimately doesn't have a narrative throughline) frequently wander: some scenes cut off too abruptly, some stretch out long past the point where we understand exactly what he's driving at. But those are little blemishes, and the greater achievements of the film - introducing us to the good work being done by brave people without egotism, and with a considerable degree of good humor and conviction, and presenting a gratifyingly non-cynical take on the troubles facing the species, uplifting without being cloying - are more than enough to assure it a place as one of the essential films of 2011.