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American Tragedy: The OJ Simpson Trial
THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
Everyone remembers at least some part of the OJ Simpson trial, whether it's the low-speed Bronco chase, the bloody glove, the image of Fred Goldman, father of murder victim Ronald, breaking down in front of news cameras, or Johnny Cochran's "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit" closing statement. It was just about the most widely covered news event in modern history and dominated virtually every water-cooler argument for over a year. Even though most reasonable people (Geraldo excluded) have moved on to new scandals in the years since, Executive Producers Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, creators of TV's Homicide, decided that 2000 was the year that the "true" story should be told. Based on the book by Lawrence Schiller and James Willwerth and directed by co-author Schiller, American Tragedy attempts to show the machinations behind the unstoppable OJ defense, the dream team of lawyers that seemed to include every famous defense attorney in the country. With a list of credits including a script by Pulitzer Prize winner Norman Mailer and performances by Ving Rhames, Ron Silver, and Bruno Kirby, American Tragedy could have been a gritty inside look at a unique group of characters. Instead, it is a laughable mess.
The errors made by the filmmakers are nearly too many to list. Most ludicrously they incorporate real footage of many of the non-lawyer players in the drama, including Mark Fuhrman, Fred Goldman, and OJ himself (although not Kato Kaelin!), rather than use actors in those roles. In the case of OJ, an actor's voice is used so that the defense can conduct endless speakerphone conversations with the former football great. Unfortunately, the voice used is like Stepin Fetchit, a ridiculous caricature of an uneducated black person. Since the film's OJ repeatedly brags about his great diction this serves to make him sound like an idiot, whereas the real OJ does speak rather eloquently. It seems like the filmmakers had an axe to grind and just wanted to humiliate OJ, rather than dissect how his trial worked. There is also the silly sight of an actor playing OJ but with his face always obscured, hiding behind a pole or in the shadows. It's about as effective as those 70's sitcoms when one actor played twins by constantly having a body double cover their face, which is to say, not very.
Another mistake was filling the film with exposition. Why Mailer was needed to write the proclamations that try to pass as dialog here is a mystery. Mostly characters just recap what's going on in a level of detail that no real conversation would reach and whenever a character does express an opinion it's supposed to be the sort of psychic foreshadowing that's usually accompanied by lightening and thunder. Not to mention that hours of the film's bloated running time seem to be taken up by watching people talk on the phone. If I never see another one of those fancy conference speakerphones in a movie again it'll be too soon.
The film also sprinkles scenes and transitions with short video clips of real people talking about OJ and the trial. This technique, created to give sociological context to the film, is so abrupt and inconsistent that it just distracts from the story of the lawyers. Since the lawyers themselves seem unconcerned with anything other than getting their client off, the subtleties of the ignorance of these man-on-the-street interviews are lost on the film.
At least the casting is creative. Although often effective as the theatrical Cochran, Rhames throws a little too much of his Made in America Don King into the mix. Still, he uses that mix of businessman and preacher that proved so potent once Cochran started using fire-and-brimstone race-baiting in court. Kirby is appropriately sleazy as Scheck, the blood expert who threw much of the prosecution's evidence into doubt. Silver is also quite good as Shapiro, the head lawyer whose strategies drove the team. Even though he disappears for much of the end of the film, he carries the air of smug superiority with him that helps him maintain control over his increasingly rancorous team. Christopher Plummer is practically buried under fat make-up as F. Lee Bailey and plays the older lawyer as if he's knocking on death's door. Prosthetics aside, Plummer convinces in a few short scenes that Bailey was unable to keep up with the pace and complexity of the trial. Richard Cox is a nonentity as Alan Dershowitz, a role that Silver attacked with much more gusto in Reversal of Fortune.
Some fine performances aside, American Tragedy is a surprisingly amateurish production and, at nearly 3 hours, almost as much of an ordeal to sit through as the trial itself.
The widescreen video is a fair transfer of what looks very much like what it is: A TV movie. There are very few blemishes on the print, but there is also very little to distinguish it. At times it looks a little too compressed, with some pixellation visible. The many video sequences have been horizontally stretched to fill the frame and look pretty strange. The occasional special effect, like compositing the actors into shots of OJ thanking the jury for letting him off the hook, are pretty poorly done.
The Dolby 2.0 audio is fine. Voices are mostly clear. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included.
The film plays on the first disc while the second disc includes two extras. The first is a film from the 70's called The Juice is Loose directed, incredibly, by horror maestro George Romero. While the transfer and audio are terrible, this film gives the film a good sense of context. Since it was made at the height of OJ's popularity it gives the kind of unblemished look at the smiling star that we'll never see again. At 45 minutes it's a good length for a sports documentary.
The other extra, "The Evidence Locker", is a collection of photos, documents, and videos from the prosecution's case against OJ. The funniest part is a 12 minutes music video style piece that flashes thousands of photos and charts to music.
American Tragedy is a confusing film. Why did the filmmakers use so many strange and distracting techniques to tell a story so grounded in reality? It never even real makes clear what the real tragedy is. Is it the murders? The trial? The acquittal? The film makes no bones about thinking that OJ is guilty as hell, a reasonable assumption given the evidence and especially obvious with the hindsight of his foolish post-trial behavior (find the "real" killers yet, buddy?), but the film is unable to shine a light on the reasons things turned out the way they did. Quick shots of the angry protests outside the courthouse suggest the deep racial rift the trial fed into (one sign reads "The bitch deserved it!" while others call OJ a murderer), but like the lawyers it features, the film just brushes past these inconveniences with a big smile on its face.