The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story is a limited series that takes you inside the O.J. Simpson trial with a riveting look at the legal teams battling to convict or acquit the football legend of double homicide. Based on the book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson by Jeffrey Toobin, it explores the chaotic behind-the-scenes dealings and maneuvering on both sides of the court, and how a combination of prosecution overconfidence, defense shrewdness, and the LAPD's history with the city's African-American community gave a jury what it needed: reasonable doubt. Written by
This is based on Jeffrey Toobin's account, "The Run Of His Life," about the murder trial of the African-American O. J. Simpson and the events leading up to it. But this film diverges from the mostly legal and characterological view that Toobin took at the time. It adds some things, intimate conversations, solitary acts, some of them certainly fabricated, and eliminates some of Toobin's more cynical observations.
In plain English, what appears to have happened is this. Simpson, an award-winning football player, admired and befriended by the Los Angeles Police Department, had a history of brutalizing his wife, the white Nicole.
One night, a dog-walker discovered the mutilated bodies of Nicol Simpson and a stranger who had happened on the scene. The police had no particular difficulty in building the case against O. J. Simposon, based on physical evidence. A earlier recorded 911 call from Nicole, while Simpson shouted threats in the background, was found. A blood trail led to Simpson's home in another part of L.A. DNA evidence was stacked against him -- his blood mixed with Nicole's was found on a pair of socks in Simpson's bedroom. A similar DNA mix was found on one glove at the murder scene and another glove on Simpson's residence. Simpson was seen by a witness speeding his white Bronco on the shortest route between the murder scene and his own house.
The physical evidence was conclusive. Or rather, conclusive to everyone except the jury, who heeded Defense Counsel Johnny Cochran's plea to "send a message to the police" by acquitting O. J. Simpson, which they did.
The trial was covered comprehensively by the manic media. To me, the most disheartening scene was a clip of law students at Howard University, a traditionally black school, when the verdict of not guilty was announced. The students leaped for joy, cheering and hugging each other. And these were law students.
As for the film itself, it's pretty well done with a couple of exceptions. Much time is given over to David Schwimmer, as Bob Kardashian, the lawyer who was a close friend of Simpson's. He always referred reverently to him as "the Juice." But, in a way, Kardashian's role in the narrative may be small but he is a fulcrum point on which the moral message turns. As the evidence accumulates, even Kardashian, the most loyal of lawyers and the oldest of friends, realizes that Simpson is a shallow man and a murderer.
As Johnny Cochran, the ever smooth Courtney Vance is phenomenal. He sees from the beginning that the trial is about race, even though Simpson had long ago lost touch with the black community. "I'm here to win," he announces with a grin. Stephen Brown as the thoughtful and sensitive Chris Darden is almost as good. Unfortunately he proved not such a hot lawyer, what with the spontaneous glove business. The film suggests that Clark was open to a closer relationship with Darden. I wonder where that information came from.
Sarah Paulsen pulls off her role as the uber-confident Marcia Clark convincingly. When things go awry, it's touching to see her alone at night, puffing on a cigarette in her back yard because her children are inside the house and -- you know, second hand smoke? One whiff and your growth is forever stunted. And, as we learn, she truly loved her kids. Kenneth Choi looks and sounds so much like Judge Lance Ito that I had the eerie feeling that it WAS Ito performing under a nom de cinema.
In the minus column is Cuba Gooding as O. J. His inability to fill the role wouldn't be so noticeable if we weren't already familiar with the original. Simpson had a fluid baritone voice. He was tall, built like a football player, an unpretentious but impressive persona. Gooding has a good physical presence but he's of normal height and his voice squeaks.
John Travolta is amusing as Robert Shapiro, who began as lead lawyer but, being a white man, was sent to the bench and replaced by the somewhat darker and more slithery Johnny Cochran. Travolta plays Shapiro with his chin stuck out and his nose in the air and a superior tone of voice. It's a parody of a high-end lawyer, but then Shapiro wasn't too distant from Travolta's vision.
Too bad for L.A., too bad for the prosecutor, too bad for America, that the racial divide that was pointed out long ago by visitors like Alexis de Toqueville and Gunnar Myrdal seems to be almost as stark now as it was then. Simpson wound up in jail anyway for a different offense. He'll be eligible for parole next year.
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