By Caryn James | James on Screens March 21, 2013 at 9:12PM
The gigantic frizzed-out wig on Al Pacino's head might be enough to make you curious about Phil Spector, the new HBO drama written and directed by David Mamet. In a multitude of wigs as conspicuously creepy as the actual Spector's, Pacino plays the fantastically successful music producer and reputed loony-tunes guy convicted of the 2007 murder in his home of Hollywood wannabe and club hostess Lana Clarkson. The first question the film raise isn't about the murder though. It's an issue that comes up with both Pacino and with Mamet today: are you getting the good or the evil twin? Pacino the actor who can still dazzle, or the over-the-top sputtering blowhard? Mamet the disciplined writer of The Untouchables and Glengarry Glen Ross or the self-indulgent filmmaker (The Winslow Boy) who dictates that everyone to speak in artificial, terse Mamet-talk?
Phil Spector veers toward the good -- although slick and easy -- and has the great added strength of Helen Mirren as Spector's reluctant lawyer, Linda Kenney Baden. We never ask the good/bad question about Mirren, who is reliably brilliant and fascinating here (with a giant blonde wig to call her own).
This story of character and legalities takes place entirely during Spector's first trial. Kenney Baden coughs and hacks her way through the trial, suffering from an illness never identified for us until the end of the film. No one can accuse Mirren of going for glamour. At first the lawyer looks at the evidence -- Clarkson met Spector that night, went to his house, was soon dead from a bullet shot directly into her mouth -- and has no idea how to defend an obviously guilty client. But as she weighs evidence, she comes to think that while Spector is guilty of a lot of horrific behavior in the past (including keeping women in his house at gunpoint) Clarkson probably accidentally killed herself.
Pacino plays it relatively cool, bringing out all Spector's nuances and eccentricities: the wigs, the gun collection, above all the refusal to listen to anyone else -- the ultimate sign of a successful man who thinks he's beyond all reason or rules. Spector won't admit, even to Kenney Baden, that he wears wigs, which may be the most telling sign of his self-delusion. Even Pacino's inevitable, sputtering, yelling, losing-control scene works because it's Spector losing control as he rehearses his testimony. This is Pacino's best performance since his last, even better HBO part, as Jack Kevorkian in Barry Levinson's You Don't Know Jack.
The film states bluntly at the start that it is fiction, and it works as a smoothly entertaining drama: mainstream Mamet with great actors. But when it takes on a deeper question, the film shows its weakness. For all its naturalness, Mamet screenplay is hollow, an easy gloss on fame and the peculiar phenomenon of media justice. The characters of Spector and Kenney Baden, and in its emphasis the film, assume he will be found guilty because he's paying the price for O.J. and Michael Jackson -- every famous person who got off a serious charge. It's the old "The famous can never get a fair trial" approach, the accusation that the media spotlight creates injustice. Mamet himself said in an interview with the Financial Times: "Whether he did it or not, we'll never know, but if he'd just been a regular citizen, they never would have indicted him." The film never makes good on that claim.
And isn't that reasoning backwards anyway? Better to ask:
how beyond-a-doubt guilty does a famous person have to be to get convicted,
when so many get off despite piles of evidence against them?
The trial Kenney Baden handled (along with famous mob lawyer Bruce Cutler, played by Jeffrey Tambor) resulted in a hung jury. The retrial, which she wasn't part of, sent him away. The film doesn't pretend to sort out the facts behind all this, but there are plenty of other places to look:
Vikram Jayanti, director of the documentary The Agony and
the Ecstasy of Phil Spector and a consultant to the HBO film, has written a thorough
piece for Newsweek-The Daily Beast. He believes Clarkson probably committed suicide,
but you don't have to buy his theory to see that he offers the best summary of
what happened in both trials, and about the appeal Spector's lawyers are trying
to arrange on a technicality.
Los Angeles magazine has a recent Q&A interview with Baden herself.
For an alternate view that argues for Spector's guilt, see this piece from an LA Times reporter who covered both trials.
None of them solve the issue of media justice, but they are strong complements to a film that’s worth watching all on its own.