There have been many queens of the TV movie, but in the form’s withered state, Rob Lowe — via his recent affiliation with Lifetime — just might be its new king. After chewing up scenery as convicted killer Drew Peterson, he returns connected to another high-profile murder case, only here as justice’s thwarted champion in “Prosecuting Casey Anthony.” All things considered, it’s a perfectly serviceable recap of the trial, niftily assembled from the perspective of attorney Jeff Ashton, based on his book. Of course, the other obvious title — “The Biggest Loser” — probably wouldn’t have cleared legal.
Director Peter Werner and writer Alison Cross shrewdly use the tidal wave of media coverage Anthony generated as an asset in telling their story, so much so that HLN’s Nancy Grace and Jane Velez-Mitchell should qualify for co-star credit. At one point, Lowe’s Ashton — watching too much of the coverage for his own mental health — snaps that Grace, as a former district attorney, “should know better.”
By now, virtually everyone should be familiar with Casey Anthony, the telegenic Florida mother accused of murdering her young daughter Caylee, conspicuously partying while the child was missing, earning the nickname “Tot mom” and becoming a ratings-boosting fixture on cable news.
Ashton catches the case, building what he sees as insurmountable evidence along with fellow prosecutor Linda Burdick (Elizabeth Mitchell). The team also opts to pursue the death penalty, thinking that might force out Anthony’s relatively inexperienced lawyer Jose Baez (“The Office’s” Oscar Nunez), who Ashton initially dismisses as a camera-whoring clown.
Baez proves more formidable than anticipated, and Anthony’s shape-shifting defense strategy — which includes accusing her father (Kevin Dunn, fine as usual) of abuse — appears to flummox them.
“What went wrong?” Ashton is asked in a post-trial TV interview used, again cleverly, to frame the story, allowing the protagonist to share his feelings and reminiscence in much the way a book would. Toward that end, there is clearly a touch of score-settling in Ashton’s account, though even that’s acknowledged when the interviewer suggests he sounds a trifle bitter.
“Prosecuting Casey Anthony” certainly isn’t deep, with only flashes of profundity regarding what these sensational trials say about our culture, including the women who ask for Ashton’s autograph, saying they built their vacation around it.
Still, the telepic has an old-fashioned quality, from building the movie around one of the ostensible good guys (Anthony, played by Virginia Welch, is featured only sparingly) to the prosecution assembling its case to the simple yet effective urgency of Richard Marvin’s score.
So even if justice wasn’t done in the eyes of most observers, one suspects that pairing “Casey Anthony” with Lowe should grant Lifetime the hoped-for Nielsen verdict.