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Indictment: The Mcmartin Trial

With Oliver Stone one of the three exec producers and James Woods in the lead role, audience is tipped fairly early that subtlety isn't going to be a factor here. Script and direction could have squeezed more dramatic juice, not to mention suspense, from the cautionary tale by infusing some doubt about guilt or innocence, particularly during the first hour. As it is, the good guys and bad guys are clearly delineated from the outset, and widespread familiarity with the case -- all charges dismissed after a brutal, seven-year battle -- leaves "Indictment" with little leeway for surprise.

With Oliver Stone one of the three exec producers and James Woods in the lead role, audience is tipped fairly early that subtlety isn’t going to be a factor here. Script and direction could have squeezed more dramatic juice, not to mention suspense, from the cautionary tale by infusing some doubt about guilt or innocence, particularly during the first hour. As it is, the good guys and bad guys are clearly delineated from the outset, and widespread familiarity with the case — all charges dismissed after a brutal, seven-year battle — leaves “Indictment” with little leeway for surprise.

Even so, the well-acted cabler hits its targets with a take-no-prisoners gusto, presenting with skill its nightmarish account of mind-boggling injustice and prosecutorial ineptitude.

Story begins in August 1983, when the mother of a 2-year-old boy phones the Manhattan Beach Police Dept. with suspicions that her son has been sexually abused at the McMartin Pre-School. That the mother was later found to be a paranoid schizophrenic who tossed around charges of abuse like cookies didn’t stop the police department from contacting other McMartin parents about the allegations. Spurred on by the television coverage of WABC-TV reporter Wayne Satz (Mark Blum) — which “Indictment” portrays as sinisterly sensationalistic — the local D.A.’s office soon lays hundreds of molestation claims against the McMartin clan and three teachers, seven defendants in all.

At the base of the claims are videotaped interviews conducted by an inexperienced social worker, Kee MacFarlane (Lolita Davidovich). Horrifying tales of rape and other abuses, including animal torture, Satanism and emotional terrorism, seem to seal the McMartins’ doom. “Children don’t lie” becomes something of a mantra in the case against them.

The telepic is at its most effective in dealing with just that issue. Re-creating the notorious videotaped interviews with numerous children –“virtually verbatim,” say the filmmakers –“Indictment” does well in demonstrating the not-so-subtle ways in which the well-meaning but woefully inept MacFarlane led, even bullied, reluctant children into ever-expanding flights of imagination. As the tales grow more and more improbable — one boy claims he was abducted on an airplane “with no windows,” while another one tells of dark ceremonies and animal sacrifice at a local church — even some of the prosecutors begin to doubt.

But not Lael Rubin (Mercedes Ruehl), the deputy D.A. who turns the McMartin case into a personal crusade. The script by Abby Mann and Myra Mann suggests Rubin wasn’t above fudging legal practices in her misguided determination. In any case, her drive comes to naught: Seven years of legal battles end in deadlock and dismissal of all charges. Two of the accused, Ray Buckey (Henry Thomas) and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey (Shirley Knight), spent years in jail without bail.

What the script sometimes lacks in balance, the actors, with a few exceptions , make up for with fleshed-out perfs. By now, Woods could portray in his sleep the edgy, hack defense lawyer who finds purpose through the case, but no matter. He’s well suited for the role and pulls it off without a hitch. Sada Thompson as the elderly McMartin matriarch is entirely convincing in her unsentimental turn; Knight suitably pathetic. Thomas all but steals his scenes as the nerdy, bespectacled Ray Buckey. Only Ruehl and Davidovich disappoint, laying on the smug self-righteousness too thick.

Richard A. Harris’ editing uses quick, jerky cuts to nice effect. Videotape of actual news accounts, including “Nightline” and “60 Minutes,” are spliced in with few seams. Ditto the re-creations of the children’s videotaped interviews.

Peter Rodgers Melnick’s score is more than a tad manipulative, alternating between maudlin heart-tugging and ominous chanting. Rodrigo Garcia’s camerawork, while a bit too busy during the chaotic media-frenzy scenes, makes good if obvious use of close-ups during the trial. A helicopter shot at pic’s end seems needlessly grand, as if the director didn’t trust the tragic poignance of his story to resonate. A similar heavy-handedness crops up throughout the telepic, but only marginally dilutes a scathing indictment.

Indictment: The Mcmartin Trial

(Sat. (20), 8-10:15 p.m., HBO)

  • Production: Filmed in Los Angeles by Ixtlan Prods. in association with Abby Mann Prods. and Breakheart Film. Executive producers, Oliver Stone, Janet Yang, Abby Mann; producer, Diana Pokorny; director, Mick Jackson; writers, Abby Mann, Myra Mann.
  • Crew: Camera, Rodrigo Garcia; editor, Richard A. Harris; production designer, Howard Cummings; sound, Mark Deren; music, Peter Rodgers Melnick.
  • Cast: Cast: James Woods, Mercedes Ruehl, Sada Thompson, Shirley Knight, Henry Thomas, Mark Blum, Alison Elliott, Chelsea Field, Joe Urla, Scott Waara, Richard Bradford, Lolita Davidovich. The defense lays out its case and gets the verdict in Mick Jackson's "Indictment: The McMartin Trial," a fact-based HBO Pictures presentation that makes no apologies for depicting the infamous child molestation case as a witch hunt straight out of Arthur Miller. Few will be left unconvinced or at least unmoved as the telepic disassembles the prosecution's arguments, points a finger at media hype and damns public hysteria in a compelling, if stacked, modern-day horror story.
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