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Television Review

The depiction of O.J. Simpson's lawyers may make 'American Tragedy' the movie the American Bar Assn. doesn't want you to see.

November 10, 2000|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

There are crimes that CBS executives believe titillate Americans endlessly, offering many avenues to profit. Perhaps they're right.

One is the unsolved JonBenet Ramsey slaying, subject of a gratuitously swollen recap in "Perfect Murder, Perfect Town," which the network deployed during the February ratings sweeps.

Another occurred June 13, 1994, when the butchered bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were found outside her Brentwood condo, launching the tumultuous murder trial of her ex-husband, O.J. Simpson, who years earlier began segueing to riches as a third-rate actor and commercial pitchman from life as a fabled footballer.

For years, media have fed off this case like Eskimos carving up every ounce of a harpooned whale, and that tonnage resurfaces again in the present ratings-counting period as the two-part "American Tragedy."

It's a docudrama that Simpson sought to have blocked in the courts, a futile attempt so far that CBS has shrewdly turned to its advantage on the promotion front. You know: The story that O.J. Simpson didn't want you to see?

The tone of that enticing tickle is fitting for this highly watchable, yet unevenly acted, essentially vacant, soulless and voyeuristic chunk of legal melodrama purporting to be an insider account of the winning defense effort led by now-famous Johnnie Cochran.

It seeks to codify what has largely been rumor and speculation. And you'd think that just as horrified as Simpson would be some of the lawyers here, notably F. Lee Bailey, who is depicted as a dinosaur of a fool who impales himself on his own arrogance.

The source is a book by Lawrence Schiller, as it was for "Perfect Murder, Perfect Town," which he directed. And he does again here with better, but mixed results, his most notable feat being his juxtaposition of actors with footage of actual characters so that they appear to be speaking to each other.

It's a tossup whether "American Tragedy" refers to the murders or the private conduct of some of Simpson's attorneys who, though undeniably talented, are as tainted here by ugly cynicism as Nicole and Ron are bloodied in the grisly images of their bodies that open these four hours.

From the moment its expensive suits gather in Los Angeles attorney Robert Shapiro's posh suite of offices like knights at a round table, so laser-focused is "American Tragedy" on intradermal combat and egoistic defense lawyers cannibalizing each other that Simpson becomes almost an outsider at his own murder trial. He's piped in only occasionally by novelist Norman Mailer, who wrote the teleplay, for an angry outburst on the phone or from the shadows to show his mercurial, controlling, aggressive, even violent nature.

And the prosecutors are hardly more than periodic footnotes in support of Cochran (Ving Rhames), Shapiro (Ron Silver), Bailey (Christopher Plummer), Barry Scheck (Bruno Kirby), Carl Douglas (Darryl Alan Reed) and Robert Kardashian (Robert LuPone).

A strikingly candid, much deeper insight into the U.S. justice system arrives on PBS next week in "Real Justice," a two-part "Frontline" documentary that uses its extraordinary access to observe happenings inside criminal courts in Boston, where most defendants haven't the luxury of high-priced legal minds.

It's fascinating and revealing, as was "Lockup: Inside Valley State Prison," a 44 Blue Productions documentary, skillfully reported by Silvia Gambardella, that was scheduled to air Thursday on MSNBC. These stories were so dramatic, and shocking in some cases, that no goosing was required.

If you're keen on guilty pleasures, though, "American Tragedy" and its World Wrestling Federation of tag-teaming lawyers are the crime story for you.

It won't impart a higher understanding of the Simpson case or its connection to lingering race and class antagonisms in the U.S. Nor will it alter opinions of Simpson.

Those certain that he's an innocent man who's been punished for being African American won't have their minds changed by this story, the anti-black hatred of discredited Los Angeles police officer Mark Fuhrman looming as ominously here as during the actual criminal trial. And the bloody glove that Simpson tried on at his televised criminal trial remains too small for his hand in the courtroom footage sliced into "American Tragedy."

"If it doesn't fit, you must acquit," we hear Cochran again tell the jury that will set Simpson free.

Yet those believing that he wielded the blade will find plenty here to bolster that, too, from Shapiro's ongoing doubts about his client's innocence, based on the evidence and a failed lie-detector test, to Cochran getting a ferocious response from an unseen Simpson when reminding him during a jailhouse visit that he'd failed to explain the cuts on his hands.

"It's a good thing I didn't have blond hair," the shaken lawyer tells his colleagues, referring to Nicole.

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