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TV Quickshots #26

American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson (FX; 2016)

There’s a certain argument to be made that the protracted mass cultural obsession that was the murder trial of former football star, commercial endorser, and actor Orenthal James Simpson for the killings of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman from late 1994 into 1995 in Los Angeles was the extended birth pangs of the current America. Media sensationalism around crime, overheated celebrity culture, race relations and the police, violence against women, wealth and fame perverting the justice system; all of these societal features and more, while certainly active and apparent prior to this very public case study in their effects, built to a fever pitch during the Simpson trial and have not really waned since.

The O.J. saga is the focus of the first season of FX’s new true crime anthology series American Crime Story, developed by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and given the familiar imprimatur of executive producer and multiple-episode director Ryan Murphy’s acclaimed horror anthology series for the network, American Horror Story. The series begins with the brutal crime and accrues its dramatis personae from there, dramatizing the breathlessly covered major events from early press conferences to the infamous White Bronco chase to the trial itself (which was right on the cusp of commencing at the end of the fourth episode, which aired this past week).

The racial dimension of the trial, taking place in a city still recovering from the riots that followed the Rodney King verdict clearing the LAPD officers who beat the African-American man on camera on the side of a freeway, is not lost and indeed receives a fair airing. But its billing is roughly equal with The People v. O.J. Simpson‘s soft-ironic treatment of the O.J. media circus’ role in foregrounding the rise of reality-show fame machine of the Kardashian clan, the now-deceased patriarch of which, Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer), rose to prominence as O.J.’s friend and lawyer.

Schwimmer’s decent but mildly foolish Kardashian is one of several notable performances among the sprawling cast. The television vet Sarah Paulson (a regular on American Horror Story) is dynamite as the righteous state prosecutor Marcia Clark, who battles valiantly to keep Simpson’s spousal abuse of Nicole front and centre but sees the case repeatedly undermined by media leaks and runaway public perceptions. Paulson has a surprising chemistry with fellow prosecutor Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown), who is warned away from the case by members of the African-American community but is brought onto the prosecution team partly to counter the racial discrimination angle favoured by Simpson’s defence team.

That star defence team, clustering around Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s dim and ambiguous “Juice”, is increasingly a source of loopy entertainment value. It’s a perpetual clash of strong personalities and egos: Simpson, Kardashian, the publicity-loving Robert Shapiro (a bizarre, ominous, plastic-faced John Travolta), courtroom veteran in search of redemption F. Lee Bailey (an inconspicuously excellent Nathan Lane), famous defender to the elite Alan Dershowitz (Evan Handler), and civil rights litigator Johnnie Cochran, whose rhetorical style was caricatured frequently during the trial but in Courtney B. Vance’s thoughtful and nuanced performance emerges as an honourable and thorough legal mind, both in tune with and rising above the din of the media circus. But that din remains two decades later, more deafening than it was during O.J.’s “trial of the century” and much more ingrained and normalized because of it.

The Great Train Robbery (BBC; 2013)

In the UK, the crime of the century may not have been quite so sensational but was just as quintessential of a cultural moment. In 1963, a gang of fifteen men held up and robbed a Royal Mail train running between Glasgow and London, divesting it of £2.6 million in cash and melting into the Buckinghamshire countryside. Media and police attention was intense, however, and the robbers’ carefully-laid plans to hide out at a nearby farm until the heat died down had to be hastily abandoned, leading eventually to their capture. Most of the perpetrators of what became known as the Great Train Robbery served long jail sentences for the audacious theft, although some evaded the law for years or even decades.

This true crime story from Britain’s past is told over the course of two 90-minute television films. The first, A Robber’s Tale, details the planning, execution, and precipitous aftermath of the robbery from the point of view of the men who carried it out, with Luke Evans as the ringleader, Bruce Reynolds. The second, A Copper’s Tale, focuses on the police investigation, arrest, and sentencing of the conspirators, with Jim Broadbent as the dogged lead detective Tommy Butler. There’s less of an active contrast in style and signification between these two parts than a continuous narrative, with the police effort practically picking up right where the robbery leaves off.

The robbery portion has the additional frisson of intrigue of a fine caper, opening with a sharp geometrically-composed earlier theft by some members of the gang before building up to the train robbery in meticulous yet breezy detail. Evans, an actor of crisp physical elegance and precision without much emotional nuance, is a fine match for such material, and watching the assuredness drain from his body as the post-theft evasion plans go awry is an eloquent expression of the gang’s predicament. Broadbent, meanwhile, is all determined rigidity of purpose in pursuit of justice for the robbers. He’s certainly capable of it, but it’s not the most effective or compelling segment of his not inconsiderable range. A Copper’s Tale is also shot with a certain incongruity considering its lead: there are multiple slow-motion shots of Broadbent’s Butler and his fellow officers strolling purposefully towards the camera that are supposed to be iconic but end up being a touch laughable.

Since the Great Train Robbery happened in Britain in the early ‘60s, it was invested with generational tensions, at least retroactively in this BBC television film version. These are made explicit by Reynolds on several occasions, as he claims that the robbery was, to his mind, more about the younger generation thumbing its nose at the Establishment than mere greed or lust for wealth. In the climactic meeting between Reynolds and Butler, the cop is dismissive of this line of argument, considering it a specious justification of a serious crime.

Whatever one may think of that, it’s hard to quibble with Reynolds’ outrage at the stiff 30-year sentences for his collaborators. More stringent than even a murder conviction, the sentences for the Great Train Robbers were part of a long British tradition of harsh penalties for property crime, seemed at least partly vindictive on the part of British institutions whose pride was wounded by the blow of the theft, and were not terribly effective as either punishment for the perpetrators or deterrent for potential ones. The Great Train Robbery illustrates the distance between cops and robbers, but also depicts a certain kinship between them that might surprise both parties.

Categories: History, Reviews, Television
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