Television commemorates a lot of arbitrary anniversaries, but 20 years since the start of the O.J. Simpson trial — given how vivid many of those moments remain — does seem particularly resonant, if jarring. Investigation Discovery has done the milestone justice with “O.J.: Trial of the Century,” filmmaker Nicole Rittenmeyer’s spare but absorbing documentary chronicling events surrounding the arrest and acquittal of the former football star, in a case that defined the celebrity trial (it even had its own Kardashian) and polarized much of the U.S. Others will surely weigh in, but ID’s two-hour doc fits the material like a glove.
Employing a style she has used on other films, Rittenmeyer dispenses with narration or experts, capitalizing on the rich treasure trove of video from the time to illustrate and punctuate every point. As a consequence, prosecutor Marcia Clark needn’t say how crestfallen she was when the verdict came in; her dazed reaction in a lingering close-up of the moment is etched all over her face.
In many respect, “O.J.” plays like a perfect companion to “June 17, 1994,” an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary that details in chronological time the array of sporting events that occurred the day of Simpson’s notorious White Bronco chase – memories largely overshadowed because of it.
“Trial of the Century” begins a few days earlier, but methodically captures how the story became a “circus” almost immediately, as Fred Goldman, the father of victim Ronald Goldman, quickly laments.
Filtered through this lens, and with the benefit of distance, parts of the trial come into greater focus. There was the real sense, for example, that O.J. Simpson’s note to the public — read by friend Robert Kardashian — was half confession, half suicide note, as he implored fans to remember “the real O.J., and not this lost person.”
For good measure, Rittenmeyer throws in some contextually appropriate footage from the Rodney King beating — an incident that preceded the Simpson case by a few years, but which for many provided long-sought evidence of abuses inflicted on the African-American community by the Los Angeles Police Dept.. The clip helps explain the outpouring of enthusiasm from many blacks, as captured on TV, to the trial’s outcome.
Finally, there’s the damage associated with LAPD officer Mark Fuhrman, whose taped use of racial epithets — and decision to take the Fifth Amendment in follow-up testimony — pounded the issue of race into a trial that, given Simpson’s privileged status and blue-chip defense team, was really more about celebrity and class.
At its close, the doc contains an unsourced estimate that the trial generated more than $1 billion in media and merchandising, which as inflated as that sounds, is probably pretty close to accurate. With this latest anniversary triggering a new round of coverage, that figure will only grow. And while “Trial of the Century” is itself indicative of the media fascination with the case, it also captures how a tragedy — on so many levels — became a farce.