With a title that echoes Theodore Dreiser, a teleplay credited to Norman Mailer, and the presence of heavy-duty actors such as Ving Rhames and Christopher Plummer, American Tragedy seems to insist that it is more than yet another money-grubbing exploitation of the 1994 deaths of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, and it is. This CBS miniseries about the O.J. Simpson trial is a terrifically effective piece of money-grubbing exploitation.
Directed by the writer and book-packager Lawrence Schiller, based on Schiller’s best-seller of the same name, American Tragedy yanks us back into the thick of the sordid events. At the start of the movie, the killings have just occurred. Now the so-called Dream Team of defense attorneys is being assembled like a gaggle of comic-book superheroes — the Justice League of America in three-piece suits. As Robert Shapiro, Ron Silver seems to have painted over each eyebrow to make them look thicker; with that and his poofed-up hair, Silver looks more like Sid Caesar than Shapiro. Among Shapiro’s draft picks are F. Lee Bailey, embodied by a Plummer so puffy with makeup he looks inflated, and Bruno Kirby’s Barry Scheck, the assiduous DNA expert.
Soon after an anonymous commentator refers to Shapiro as ”a colorful celebrity attorney,” Simpson decides he needs more heavy-duty help — he also wants Johnnie Cochran to be the sunny Superman to Shapiro’s dark, glowering Batman. Beyond donning Cochran’s signature large eyeglasses, Rhames doesn’t bother trying to look like the lawyer — he simply nails Cochran’s Baptist-oracular courtroom tone, and that’s plenty to make him convincing. As for Simpson himself: We never see the face of the actor (Raymond Forchion) portraying him, only his back and his voice, usually on a speakerphone yammering to his lawyers (”I want an acquittal! I am innocent!”). The miniseries occasionally shows us news footage of the real Simpson, and does a brilliant job of editing many of the actors into now-familiar courtroom videotape containing the actual images and testimony of numerous witnesses, including police detective Mark Fuhrman.
Director Schiller is cunning. He keeps the villains of his piece — Simpson (whom he suggests is guilty) and Fuhrman (whom he portrays as racist) — at a distance, so we’re free to despise them. And Schiller has many good actors portraying the defense team, Judge Lance Ito (Clyde Kusatsu), and prosecutors Marcia Clark (Diana LaMar) and Christopher Darden (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), so that we get drawn into the drama of strategy. Furthermore, Schiller and Mailer take two black members of Cochran’s staff, Carl Douglas (Darryl Alan Reed) and Shawn Chapman (Sandra Prosper), and have them speak sentiments felt by a great many African Americans, either about Simpson’s innocence, or about the perceived impossibility of a black man getting a fair trial in the murder of two white people.
The result is often superficially titillating: See Shapiro’s contempt for Bailey! See Shapiro and Cochran namedrop Connie Chung as proof of their celebrity-friend status! The script, basically a distillation of Schiller’s reportage padded with dialogue that puts the facts in a dramatic framework, doesn’t show a trace of Mailer’s brawny/brainy style (I’m left to assume that the writer, who worked with Schiller on Mailer’s great book about Gary Gilmore, The Executioner’s Song, took this teleplay on primarily as a big-paycheck assignment). But the tragedy is also genuinely wrenching — it does a good job of laying out the bare-bones truth of the cynicism on both sides, and suggests that Marcia Clark wasn’t ruthless enough to defeat Simpson’s team.
The title insists that the entire event, from the murders to Simpson’s acquittal, was a tragedy, but a lawyerly strict interpretation of that term doesn’t yield one necessary element — a tragic hero — for that to be true. (If Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman were meant to take on that role, they are not represented as such here; no actors make their lives vibrant — all we see of them is their slashed bodies and grotesque courtroom-evidence photographs.) A more accurate title might have been American Insanity, for the way this production shows the country as addled with all kinds of racism and revved up by media coverage that turns awful events into unpredictable pop culture — including a surprisingly fascinating miniseries like this. B+