Forget everything you expect from Ken Burns — the leisurely panning of old photos, the lush musical interludes, the syrupy narrator's voice. In "The Central Park Five," Burns, along with his daughter Sarah Burns and David McMahon, adopts a tense, fast-paced tone to tell the gripping story of the wrongful conviction of five black and Hispanic teens for the 1989 rape of a jogger in Central Park.

"The Central Park Five" starts with all the establishing narrative we will need, text on the screen over a moody shot of a dim moon seen through tree branches: "On the night of April 19, 1989, a jogger was brutally beaten and raped in New York's Central Park. Five teenagers, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise were convicted of the crime."

New York City police and prosecutors refused comment.

Then it's directly to the voice of Matias Reyes, the man who admitted his guilt 13 years after the attack, when the statute of limitations had expired. Reyes says, "I'm the one that did this."

So we know what happened. But we don't know how it could have gone so horribly wrong.

How could the justice system have so mishandled this case, affecting not only the accused teens and victim Tricia Meili, but also the women Reyes victimized after the Central Park attack? How could DNA and forensic evidence be ignored? Perhaps most puzzling, why would four of the five innocent 14- to 16-year-olds give detailed confessions to a crime they did not commit?

Burns' scene-setting, in the crime-ridden, economically and racially polarized city of New York in the 1980s, is pitch perfect. Clips of the Howard Beach race riots, the ravages of drugs, subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz cut to the almost idyllic early memories of the men who were convicted in the rape.

Then it's on to that night. Sent by Raymond Santana Sr. to the park to avoid trouble, the friends join a larger group of teens, some of whom attack a homeless man and a male jogger, grab at a couple on a bike.

Police arrive and arrest a few of the youths. They are on the verge of being released when two men find Meili, who is nearly dead. A detective says, "Hold on to those guys."

The city's reaction to this brutal attack — unlike the hundreds of other rapes and murders — is outrage. Newspapers and TV reports introduce terrifying new terms of depravity: The teens were "wilding," running in a "wolf pack." The pressure is on to find the culprits.

Hours-long interrogations wear the teens down. Each is told that others are blaming him and that he will be freed as soon as he explains what the others did. So some confess, with details provided by police. Despite the contradictions, the fact that none of the teens' DNA is present and that the DNA of an unknown man is found, each is convicted. They serve full sentences; some are refused parole because they deny guilt.

Finally, Reyes tells the truth. Some, including zealous prosecutor Linda Fairstein, continue to argue that Reyes was just the last of the group to rape the jogger. But truth finally prevails.

In 2003, the Central Park Five sued the City of New York and its police department for damages. That suit remains unresolved, but, in a bitter final insult that is not mentioned, attorneys for New York subpoenaed Burns' footage.

This masterful documentary is a brilliant lesson in the mutability of truth and the value of skepticism amid public outrage.




Review: 4 stars (Out of 4)

Directors: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon

Running time: 119 minutes

Rating: Unrated, but PG-13 equivalent for pervasive disturbing themes and profanity.

The Lowdown: Documentary about the five teens convicted in the rape and beating of the Central Park Jogger in 1989.