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'American Tragedy' rehashes O.J. trial

Sunday, November 12, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

For two years, Americans got a steady diet of O.J. Simpson news, so why would anyone want to endure another minute of the "trial of the century," let alone a four hour mini-series?

That's an obvious question to ask programmers at CBS, which premieres "American Tragedy" tonight at 9 (continuing Wednesday at the same time). This chronicle of the defense team that secured Simpson's acquittal gets off to a shaky, even laughable start.

It's bad enough the actors are buried under makeup, wigs and prosthetics in an attempt to make them look like the real people they're playing. Worse yet, O.J. Simpson is the program's white elephant. Or the Charlie ("Charlie's Angels"). Or the Maris ("Frasier"). Or the Vera ("Cheers").

Simpson's face is never seen on camera in his own story except shots of the real Simpson in news footage. That doesn't stop an actor playing O.J. (Raymond Forchion) from calling up his lawyers and proclaiming via speaker phone his innocence in the murders of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. It's an off-putting device that detracts and makes "American Tragedy" seem ridiculous in the early going.

That's too bad, because after the first hour, "American Tragedy" becomes more engrossing. The focus shifts to in-fighting among Simpson's lawyers, O.J. makes fewer phone calls, and the heavy makeup on the actors becomes less distracting.

"American Tragedy" was executive produced by Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana ("Homicide: Life on the Street") and Lawrence Schiller, who directed "American Tragedy" based on his own book. Pulitzer Prize-winner Norman Mailer ("Executioner's Song") wrote the screenplay.

Schiller previously helmed CBS's February sweeps miniseries "Perfect Murder, Perfect Town," about the Jon Benet Ramsey murder case. Like "Perfect Murder," "American Tragedy" concentrates on behind-the-scenes politics rather than lurid details of the case. Whether either miniseries reveals new details depends on how much you know about the cases. Given the extensive, excessive Simpson trial coverage in the media, my guess is "American Tragedy" will seem more familiar and less revelatory to most viewers.

Ron Silver stars as Robert Shapiro, a lawyer specializing in big-name Hollywood clients who is the first attorney on Simpson's dream team. Shapiro comes off as vain, self-serving, paranoid and unconvinced by Simpson's protests of innocence.

Enter Ving Rhames as Johnnie Cochran, who's already been played to perfection by Phil Morris on "Seinfeld" as Cochran stand-in Jackie Chiles. But Rhames is a powerful actor who can erase memories of the caricature.

The tour de force performance in "American Tragedy" comes from Christopher Plummer as F. Lee Bailey. He's buried under who knows how much makeup, but Plummer makes Bailey's bark ring out. Plummer plays him as a growling, impatient, grumpy old man who ultimately gets shunted aside by other members of the defense team even though he believes in Simpson's innocence more than anyone.

"American Tragedy" doesn't go behind the scenes with the prosecutors, although both Diana LaMar and Ruben Santiago-Hudson get the body language and vocal intonations right when playing Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden in Judge Ito's courtroom.

Those scenes also feature racist cop Mark Fuhrman on the witness stand, but the producers choose to use actual footage of Fuhrman rather than hiring an actor to play the part. This results in shots of actors playing the attorneys asking questions intercut with the real Fuhrman responding. It's a strange creative choice, and one that again makes you wonder whether this story needed to be retold.

But "American Tragedy" is worth watching for legal junkies because of its backstage pass to the world of big-money criminal defense attorneys. They're seen getting too caught up in their own press and mystique, attending lavish dinner parties, joking about the kind of woman Simpson should date after he's acquitted and knowingly withholding documents from prosecutors until the last possible moment.

Most of all, "American Tragedy" is a story of race. The jury selection scenes play like a chess match with defense and prosecutors swapping out black and white potential jurors at will. There also are some harsh, racially based exchanges between prosecutor Darden and defense attorney Cochran.

Ultimately, the miniseries raises questions to which we can't possibly know the answers. Did Cochran believe in Simpson's innocence? A scene near the end of "American Tragedy" raises the question. The real tragedy isn't that this miniseries fails to provide an answer, it's that so many people, myself included, remain curious enough to care.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

TV REVIEW

"American Tragedy"

When: 9 tonight and Wednesday on CBS.

Starring: Ving Rhames, Ron Silver, Bruno Kirby, Christopher Plummer.



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