Ty Burr
March 08, 1996 AT 05:00 AM EST

Did anyone else notice how quiet people were the week after the O.J. Simpson verdict? After a year and a half of chaotic noise, it seemed that almost everyone turned, exhausted, to other matters. To contemplate it further would have meant a deeper examination of America’s racial tensions, or, worse, thinking about why one wanted O.J. found guilty in the first place. (Because he did it? Oh, so you were there?)

Consequently, the general reaction to the release of O.J. Simpson: The Interview has been one of sullen resentment. No matter how much Simpson ”needs the money,” this tape is at most an offense to the judicial process and, at least, in lousy taste. For that reason, its audience will probably be much smaller than Simpson hopes. But to forgo Interview is to miss seeing a man defending his innocence with visceral passion — or else the acting performance of a lifetime. Either way, it’s hard to look away.

Half of the 160-minute video features Simpson, seated in the family room of his home, discussing the trial, the murders, his relationship with Nicole, and so forth. The questions lobbed by Ross Becker, a tweedy former anchorman for an L.A. TV station, are superficially tough (”Do you agree that there’s an amazing number of improbable coincidences?”), but there’s little follow-up: Simpson is articulate, insistent, and clearly in charge. He’s precise in his recollections of some matters, giving a remarkably detailed play-by-play of which bag, with what contents, went where during his limo trip to the airport, while remaining stubbornly evasive on such issues as gloves (”I submit that any well-dressed man wears similar gloves”).

He downplays the amount of blood found at his home and scoffs at the methods by which it was collected. He says he naively believed that people like Marcia Clark and Mark Fuhrman were interested in justice, only to become convinced that they were out to railroad him. And above all, he rages at the media, ”the pundits,” and those who he feels have benefited from the trial with fame and multimillion-dollar book deals. At one point, his voice rises with indignation — ”I’m sorry, I’m getting a little pissed” — and perhaps this is the well-founded paranoia of an innocent man caught in a Kafkaesque web. Or perhaps it’s an astounding example of a guilty man’s capacity for denial. It’s certainly drama, and between you and me, I never thought O.J. was this good an actor.

What you take away from this tape, though, isn’t that moment, or even the uneasily slick second part, in which Simpson takes the viewer around his estate to point out holes in the prosecution’s case. What you remember is his depiction of Nicole and their relationship: that he was only trying to ”physically remove” her from his room in 1989, that the 911 tape from 1993 simply recorded a ”family argument.” Our memories of the photos of his wife’s bruises and the sound of her terror over the phone are the closest we’ll come to a cross-examination here, but they’re powerful enough. And comments like ”Battery is not a one-way street” reveal more than Simpson may wish. Those who look for it will see here the aggrieved, victimized truculence of a classic abuser; at the very least, Simpson’s stated plans to speak to ”women’s groups” seem seriously deluded.

Will this tape change any minds? For the two or three that aren’t made up, maybe. Ultimately, Simpson’s in the same boat Marcia Clark was in, but facing the opposite way — he wants to disprove that he did it, yet can’t prove he didn’t. Judging from Interview, the man deserves either our apologies or an Oscar.

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