I couldn't help it -- after watching The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story -- umpteen hours over about three days -- I had to read some other reviews of it. They convinced me not to waste pixels opinionizing about the real trial, which here in Los Angeles remained big, world-changing news for what seemed like years. The miniseries is quite good, even with a couple of reservations. Yes, the producers have enough screen time to cover the Fall of the Roman Empire, but the pacing has snap -- it's neither rushed nor selective. The inside story will be big news to those of us who only saw the news hysteria and media circus aspects of the trial. And the show earns our gratitude for its good taste and judgment -- it minimizes elements like Kato Kaelin.
Mainly, the miniseries quickly impresses us with its remarkable casting choices, so many of which are almost too spot-on to be believed. Actress Sarah Paulson makes such a positive impression that I know I'll definitely be looking to see more of her work. There is one glaring exception to the star lineup, but it's a really tough role to cast.
With unfazed self-assurance, The People v. O.J. Simpson moves through the complex web of personalities and relationships around what were called the Nicole Brown Simpson murders. It's all here: the savagely butchered bodies, the trails of blood and bloody glove that provide so much evidence that a conviction would seem automatic, and a next-of-kin who suddenly turns into a prime suspect. Told over the phone that his wife is dead, he doesn't even ask how it happened. A Brentwood millionaire steeped in Hollywood friends, O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) is defended by an incredible dream team. Plea-bargainer to the stars Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) puts his own reputation first, Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) is an emotional best friend, and the famed F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane) is looking for a high-profile comeback. Although the skittish Shapiro persists in believing that the best approach is to get the charge reduced to manslaughter, the experts demolish the case by fair means and foul. Attorney Barry Scheck (Rob Morrow) does wonders making the relatively new DNA evidence seem tainted. When an image of Simpson in a magazine looks too 'black,' the defense is able to claim that everyone is against O.J., that the prosecution is racially motivated.
The whole character of the defense changes when Shapiro brings in black attorney Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), a powerhouse litigator and impassioned activist. Shapiro is looking to build the trial into a landmark civil rights case. He manages to re-write the story of the crime from that of a man who savagely beat his wife, to a victim of the racist L.A.P.D..
The defense is thorough and sincere, but too quick to assume an easy victory because it possesses so much hard evidence against Simpson. D.A. Gil Garcetti (Bruce Greenwood) thinks mostly of his career, and lead prosecutor Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) is distracted by personal divorce problems. Co-prosecutor Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) is well aware that he will be considered a traitor for his part in trying one of the biggest heroes in the black community. The prosecution is simply out-gunned by Simpson's stellar defense team, which manages to cloud the issues, and takes immediate advantage of weaknesses. Terrible mistakes are made. Against Christopher Darden's advice, Marcia Clark puts detective Mark Fuhrman on the witness stand, even though the man has a reputation for racist behavior.
The final key element is Judge Lance Ito (Kenneth Choi), who is excited to be trying such a high-profile showbiz case. The trial is carried live on television, a decision that makes it a virtual Reality Show. The defense team is able to make the beloved Simpson seem a victim of injustice, while Marcia Clark bemoans the fact that the real victims are all but forgotten. The 'narrative' is no longer about spousal abuse, but revelations of racist evil in the city's police.
The producers restage the slow-speed Bronco pursuit, various dramatic courtroom clashes and the infamous, 'If the glove don't fit, you must acquit' debacle that reveals just how badly a prosecution strategy can go. But our interest is sustained by the virtuosity of the players. Sarah Paulson's Marcia Clark has the most screen time, and is just riveting. Is this a major new star? The various ways the defense and the media tear Clark down would shatter anyone. John Travolta (also one of the show's producers) makes Robert Shapiro a thoroughly craven elitist, while David Schwimmer makes Simpson buddy Rob Kardashian, another Mercedes 'n' Scandia West-sider, extremely sympathetic. Kardashian's faith in his pal is shaken because he can't ignore the overwhelming preponderance of evidence pointing to Simpson's guilt.
The trial demonstrates how the distortions of the media can convert an entire city into a mob, a forecast of today's political media chaos. D.A. Garcetti is fearful that Johnnie Cochran would love to ignite another round of riots. In the clash of questionably relevant 'big issues,' the miniseries shows how things like evidence and rational judgment crumble before Big Drama. At one point Marcia Clark demonstrates to some men in a bar how utterly impossible it would be for a conspiratorial L.A.P.D. to plant all the blood evidence against Simpson -- to do so would require a time machine. We of course think that her show & tell talk should have been put before the jury, instead of so much boring science chat about how DNA works.
The show also gets to spend ample screen time to examine how the jury is selected and sequestered, and why it is nonsense to believe that the jurors won't be influenced by outside opinions. They all want to be famous too, and lie on their questionnaires and try to take notes for forbidden book deals. And finally, the notoriety of the case brings in crazy outside discoveries that blow parts of the prosecution's case wide open. It's not that their evidence is necessarily bad. But their inconsistent, rule-breaking Standard Operating Procedures are easily demolished by the defense's legal masterminds. And then there are the outright dirty tricks: Cochran redecorated O.J. Simpson's house just prior to the jury's visit, swapping out nude photos of his girlfriend with African art and pictures of his mother. Author Dominique Dunne (Robert Morse) has been given a permanent ringside seat in the courtroom audience by Judge Ito (hmmm..), and remarks that things are happening in the case that would be rejected by any writer of airport crime fiction.
I don't know how this movie affects other people, but having lived through the trial here in Los Angeles, it felt like a window into the inner secrets of a major life experience. We're told that almost every major player involved wrote a book about the case, so it's likely that not too much of what we see is fictional guesswork. (The series is based on Jeffrey Toobin's book "The Run of His Life: The People V. O. J. Simpson." ) Since both Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden put down their experiences in print, perhaps it's fair to imply that they almost did have an intimate relationship. The interplay of all the characters is fairly delicate, yet respectful. And nobody -- make that almost nobody -- is an outright villain, so everyone retains a modicum of dignity. I had no idea that there was such a great story here. The prosecution and defense promote narratives about spousal abuse and race inequity, but it's also about the warping influence of money and Brentwood elitism, of a law system crippled by a super-team defense that can muster more resources and expertise available to any D.A. in the country. The full show is 8.3 hours in duration, and I didn't skip a minute of it.
Some reviewers have complained about bad acting from John Travolta; I only saw him portraying an unlikeable personality, which shows more class from Travolta than I would have suspected. The one obvious casting problem is Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. Gooding's performance is all it needs to be but I was immediately disappointed that he wasn't that much of a match for Simpson either physically or in temperament. O.J. was the biggest guy in almost any room, intimidating big. Gooding is probably pretty big but he's not that imposing. O.J. had an outgoing personality, but it was a sparkle-for-the-cameras Hollywood kind of personality. When Gooding 'performs' in the courtroom, he comes off as naturally sympathetic and reasonably sincere-looking. O.J. projected ten varieties of contempt and hostility even when smiling. When he tried on the all-important glove, it was more false than anything I ever saw on Perry Mason.
When Judge Ito opened the proceedings to Television he allowed the sensational media to influence public opinion, and the defense was all too eager to shovel juicy sensation into the media mill. Because it makes Simpson out to be less cynical and deceitful as he was in real life, The People v. O.J. Simpson's view of the trial isn't as severe a circus as it was in real life. I guess it was not possible to present Simpson in any but neutral terms, always leaving the door of doubt open just a little. This show won't make either side happy, but it walks the tightrope with admirable skill.
Fox Home Video's Blu-ray of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story packages the ten episodes of the eight-plus hour show on three discs. I don't see too many miniseries on disc and must state up front that the way this one is laid out gets my hearty approval. On the disc sets for Mad Men one must go through logos and the full opening montage for every episode. For Simpson the episodes are laid out one after another and play straight through, jumping from the end credits of one to the prologue of the next. If you want to keep watching, there's no fumbling for remotes to re-navigate the menu, skip extra logos, etc. Also, Fox's encoding makes interrupted watching a breeze. I had to break from viewing several times, and even play other discs in the interim. Whenever I put a Simpson disc back in the machine, I got a prompt asking if I wanted to continue from where I left off. That feature is much appreciated.
The show looks great from end to end, as one would expect a new cable product to look -- impeccable images, smooth sound and a pleasing presence at all times. Clever sets and manipulations make the crime scene and O.J.'s house look like we remembered it on TV from back in the day. The only hint of limitations comes in the Bronco chase, where it's obvious that only one stretch of freeway could be accessed to shoot the close-up shots of Simpson driving about, threatening to shoot himself in the head: they keep passing the same green overhead freeway sign, at least three times.
For those who wich more info on the case, an interactive trial calendar nails down specific events to specific dates. A second extra is a lengthy making-of piece that soon wears out its welcome. It consists mostly of the talented producer and key writers congratulating themselves and each other on the swell job they did.
I laughed out loud at least three times in this show, not because of jokes but because it got something about Los Angeles life so exactly right. It was pleasant to see actors like Robert Morse used so effectively. I stay away from everything Kardashian but by the way the Kardashian kids are given special note, I suppose they are the ones that grew up to become the culture-despoiling Reality TV stars that were unavoidable in the last fifteen years.
One more thing... all that done their patriotic jury duty will be tickled (or infuriated) by the entire marvelous episode devoted to the experience of the jurors, and their insane and counterproductive sequestration ordeal. After all the chicanery, juror cheating and courtroom wrangling to remove this juror or keep that one, it's hilarious to see Judge Ito flabbergasted to discover that he's almost completely out of juror alternates.
A second 'one more thing': being proud of the fact that I didn't turn this review into an op-ed piece about the merits of the Simpson verdict, I still want to bring up something that I haven't heard much discussion of. Way back in the 1970s O.J. Simpson was a special guest on Saturday Night Live. For one skit he spoofed himself all too tellingly. The skit shows the retired Simpson playing himself, having a couple of friends over to watch a football game, where it's expected that a player is about to break one of O.J.'s records. Simpson excuses himself to fix some snacks in the kitchen and throws a berserk anger fit, smashing things, etcetera, until the announcer says that the record hasn't been broken after all. Simpson then returns to the party as if nothing had happened, calm and collected. I have to think that this skit, if seen now, would play like a horror story.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,