It doesn't take all that much bravery to stand up in vocal support of a group of wrongfully-convicted kids years after they've all been released from prison and found their convictions stricken from the record, with all of the facts left firmly outside the realm of dispute; but that doesn't keep The Central Park Five from being an absolutely stunning advocacy documentary, anyway. The film takes us to New York, in the spring of 1989, when a 28-year-old white investment banker was beaten and raped into a coma in Central Park; five teenagers, all non-white, were indicted for the crime, and convicted a year later, serving out their sentences of six to eight years in the case of those who were tried as juveniles; the one unlucky seventeen-year-old among them was still serving his sentence in 2002, when a convicted serial rapist confessed to the crime, with DNA evidence confirming his guilt.

Dry, if upsetting facts: the brilliance of the movie lies in fleshing this narrative out with the stories of the five youths: Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Antron McCray (the last of whom does not appear except as a disembodied voice, and in vintage footage, fearing even now for his safety). And, too, it lies in the setting of this one story against the background of New York City in the late 1980s, a time of rampant crime and intense racial tension that flared up in the ugliest ways almost constantly (a little cinematic context: that summer witnessed the premiere of Do the Right Thing, arguably the most visceral and insightful movies about America's race problem ever made). In just a hair less than two hours, the film is able to tell with swift but precise strokes what kind of culture made this frenzied railroading of five young men possible, and to demonstrate what they have been deprived of, even now that they're free and divested of this gruesome crime from their record.

We would expect nothing less from co-director Ken Burns, one of the few brand-name documentarians working in the world right now, making a rare theatrical production; one of the things he's best at is capturing the shape of large cultural moments and bringing them down to a human level. But he's also not given to as much passion as we see in The Central Park Five, preferring the historian's approach to the polemicist's, and for this we can maybe credit his fellow director and daughter, Sarah Burns, whose book The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City's Most Infamous Crimes was the immediate inspiration for this movie (her husband, David McMahon, makes up the trifecta of credited directors); Burns père being the only person here with previous filmmaking experience, it's difficult to say exactly what each leg of the filmmaking team brought to the table, only that to think of this as just another Ken Burns picture is to needlessly limit it, and to minimise the degree to which it is a genuinely angry piece.

Regardless, the point remains: The Central Park Five is a wonderfully vital, illuminating study of the New York of 20-plus years ago, capturing with nauseating detail how a panicked society was ready and eager to pillory five teenagers as a way of proving to themselves that the urban decay all around could be fought and contained by sufficiently willful actions. That's really the subtext, and even the text, to all of the remarkable footage and newspaper headlines the filmmakers dredge up: stuff like mayor Ed Koch raving about how wonderful it is to utterly destroy wrongdoers with extreme prejudice, in language that would be disgusting from the head of civic government even if the five young men were genuinely guilty; stuff like the exuberantly blood-lusting newspapers of the day that don't make even a feint towards hiding their race-baiting mentality.

If only for its ability to draw this macro-level depiction of how the most important city in the Western World was mired in such paranoid fear of violence, and thuggish endorsement of racially-tinged solutions to that violence, The Central Park Five would be a great documentary; but that's only the background information, the context necessary to understand the human story which is the movie's main subject, and the focus of its rage; not against a culture in which this kind of behavior is possible, but against the culture in which this happened. While the Burnses and McMahon can be legitimately accused of sugarcoating their subjects a little bit - while nobody could rationally claim they were guilty of the crime for which they were convicted, it's just as clear that they, and the larger group they were a part of, were up to antisocially rambunctious things on that fateful night - the movie isn't looking to exonerate or justify the Central Park Five, but to simply look at them as human beings like any of us who suffered through a years-long nightmare for no good reason at all; the pawns in a truly Kafka-esque maze of inscrutable officials re-writing reality on the fly, leading the suspects to sign off on blatantly falsified confessions. The largest single part of the movie, in fact, deals not with the innocent's life in prison, or the difficulty in re-adapting to outside life, or even to the trial, but to that first couple of days, in which the police ground the kids down until they said whatever needed saying to get out and get back to normal.

That, in fact, is the theme that underlies everything else: the five youths, their persecutors in the government and the press, the citizenry that gratefully allowed this railroading to take place, all just longed above all, for a return to normalcy, and all involved made terrible mistakes in that pursuit. It's that element especially that makes The Central Park Five such a piercing, insightful work, even years after it could have reasonably been said to do any proper good (it may or may not have been intended as an advocacy piece for three of the five's suit against New York; that question is at the heart of a subpoena against the filmmakers currently in process): the film isn't just illustrating a miscarriage of justice, but depicting that miscarriage in a way that can be instantly understood by anyone with a heart. It puts a human face on the abstraction of "wrongful imprisonment" that, if it calls for an action at all, mostly asks us to think more closely about the fact that this sort of injustice still happens all the time, in a country that isn't all that more sane about race than we were two decades ago. It's a bit stiff in the filmmaking but this is an intelligent and moving a social-studies piece as I've seen in many a long month.