First rule of thumb in courtroom dramas, most writing coaches would say, is to avoid courtroom scenes. They tend to make the action static and limit the drama that can better be explained through re-enactments and flashbacks that relate to testimony. But this CBS mini is in the adept hands of Lawrence Schiller and writer Norman Mailer who manage to craft this story with an impeccable eye for detail and a flair for nuanced drama. Greatly enhanced by Christopher Plummer’s Emmy-worthy turn as F. Lee Bailey, “American Tragedy” is about as good as TV gets in retelling a story where the entire audience already knows the ins, the outs and the outcome.
To a certain extent, the O.J. Simpson trial rewrote the book on how to set a compelling drama within the halls of justice; in its wake have been a series of well-received shows and films that rely on a newfound patience for and, possibly, a comprehension of law. Court dramas, particularly TV’s “Law & Order” and “The Practice” and the films “The Insider,” “Erin Brockovich” and “A Civil Action,” are of a considerably different tone than their predecessors. “American Tragedy” follows a story arc not unlike that of “A Civil Action.”
Subtext of this tragedy is the battle of wits and ego as attorneys Johnnie Cochran (Ving Rhames) and Robert Shapiro (Ron Silver) evolve into publicity-craving grandstanders, hungry for positions of power in social and legal circles. Shapiro starts strong and fades to the background as the story moves from the planning to the execution; Cochran grows from an aw-shucks innocent into a media-savvy bully, suggesting Shapiro gave him a stage to become a star.
Schiller stands alone as a director of screenplays based on his books, his last being the JonBenet Ramsey saga “Perfect Murder, Perfect Town.” In “American Tragedy” he takes part one to dissect the pretrial legal strategy from the first phone call placed to Shapiro up to the jurors’ tour of Simpson’s Brentwood estate. Part two starts with L.A. police detective Mark Fuhrman taking the stand and closes with the real Simpson mouthing “thank you” to the jury as he stands between the superimposed fictional Cochran and Barry Scheck (Bruno Kirby).
Mini sheds little light on anything that might not have been known before, though viewers will certainly bring their own recollections to bear in judging show’s veracity. Where, for example, is Cochran donning the knit cap or Nicole Brown’s relatives or Kato Kaelin? Actual footage of the father of the murdered Ronald Goldman reminds that two people lost their lives, but the media barrage from the Goldmans and Browns that reverberated through Los Angeles seems, at most, to be background noise in these lawyers’ lives.
All views of Simpson are obscured by scenery or darkness, though his presence is felt constantly through the speaker phone. He advises his lawyers about their conduct, tactics and even diction, but mostly he exclaims “I didn’t do it” over and over and over.
The real trial brought this legal dream team into America’s homes for so long that the actors’ physical traits work for and against them. Plummer fully envelopes Bailey’s determination and the pride-swallowing he has to do as his tactics and advice are shot down by the two other big cheeses. As DNA expert Barry Scheck, Kirby benefits from a reasonably close resemblance and Kirby’s naturally squirrely acting style.
The two leads are problematic, though. Rhames is far bigger than the lean Cochran, and his presence is far more in-your-face intimidating than the real-life Cochran ever appeared to be. Cochran, from most accounts, was slick and calculated. In “American Tragedy,” he is driven by anger and blind ambition.
Silver’s Shapiro is all too familiar, his portrayal disturbingly similar to the way he played Alan Dershowitz in the pic “Reversal of Fortune” and the late concert promoter Bill Graham in the one-man stage show “Bill Graham Presents.” He handles pomposity and deviousness well — enough to make one wonder if his Shapiro portrayal isn’t the one that’s most dead-on.
Clyde Kusatsu makes for a fine Judge Ito, and Darryl Alan Reed admirably makes the most of the thankless role lawyer Carl Douglas played during the trial. Robert LuPone is constrained by the way Bob Kardashian is written — as an uncouth yes-man — and Ruben Santiago-Hudson has to play prosecutor Chris Darden as enemy to all. Diana LaMar’s Marcia Clark is effective but limited.
Technically, the pic is remarkably sharp as Schiller’s direction is clean and pointed. Editing by Peter and Katina Zinner is seamless, briskly moving the action on the first night and enhancing the collapse of the various relationships on the second. One well-done aspect is the marriage of new footage with actual cross-examination of witnesses such as Fuhrman.
Mini makes extensive use of downtown L.A. and Westside locales, from restaurants to law offices to homes. It’s all as real as a 45 mph ride down the San Diego Freeway.