The new HBO film Phil Spector begins with a disclaimer that says “This is a work of fiction. It’s not ‘based on a true story.’ It is a drama inspired by actual persons in a trial, but it is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor to comment upon the trial or its outcome.”
That is the movie’s first indication that it isn’t going to be a standard biopic, but something much stranger. The film, written and directed by David Mamet and starring Al Pacino and Helen Mirren, tells the story of Phil Spector’s 2007 trial for the murder of Lana Clarkson.
For those who don’t know, Spector was an extremely successful music producer in the 1960s, working with artists from the Ronettes to the Beatles, who became well-known for his reclusive and erratic behavior.
The film presents the trial from the perspective of Spector’s attorney Linda Kenney Baden, played by Helen Mirren, as she attempts to construct a defense for her client. Initial evidence suggests that Spector was likely guilty, but he maintains that Clarkson committed suicide, and Baden’s search for evidence to convince a jury of that fact is the film’s main narrative thread.
It’s a subtle distinction, but that narrative is not about determining if Spector actually was guilty. In fact, the film seems uninterested in the question of guilt. Instead, the plot can mostly be boiled down to Baden thinking of some new tactic for her defense, then seeing how that tactic will ultimately fail in court.
It’s a flimsy narrative hook, especially when much of the audience already knows how the trial turns out. The premise seems more like an excuse to let Al Pacino play a famously unhinged public figure than anything else.
In recent years Pacino has become something of a caricature of himself, giving increasingly exaggerated performances that lack the emotional core of his earlier work. So his appearance here, as he delivers the dialogue of Mamet, a writer known for his theatrical style, seems like a recipe for disaster, but Pacino is surprisingly solid.
It isn’t exactly a restrained performance, but he toys with his reputation for scenery-chewing, constantly teetering on the edge of exploding without quite tipping over. When he finally does explode in the film’s climax, it feels like an earned moment, rather than just another of Pacino’s trademark freakouts.
Unfortunately, the film has trouble figuring out what do with Pacino’s performance, as much of the running time is spent waiting through tedious discussions of legal proceedings until the next scene between Mirren and Pacino begins. It starts strongly enough, first with an energetic scene between Mirren and Jeffrey Tambor, playing Bruce Cutler, in which Cutler convinces Baden to take on the case, and then transitioning into the extended dialogue of Baden and Spector’s first meeting. Mirren is every bit Pacino’s equal, and she is able to keep up with him while giving a much quieter performance.
However, her character becomes less interesting outside of her scenes with Pacino and Tambor, where she is expected to carry the plot forward. After her initial reticence to take the case, Baden devotes herself completely to exonerating Spector, but the film never provides a satisfying explanation for her conversion, which makes her motivations a little too opaque.
Those problems seem to originate in the script, which frequently provides exciting snatches of dialogue but rarely creates an narrative urgency. Similarly, Mamet’s direction excels in the long conversation scenes, which he imbues with a real sense of energy, but he is unable to spice up the more mundane scenes.
One directorial choice he makes which is successful is his treatment of violence. We never see the violent act that sets off the trial, but it hangs over the proceedings. Mamet fills the film with indirect representations of violence, from photographs of the crime scene hanging in the background to the various empty holsters hanging in Spector’s house.
There is a rather clever sequence near the end of the film where Baden attempts to recreate the shooting and we are able to see how it may have happened, using plastic mannequins and fake blood.
In that moment, the film successfully delves deeper into the questions it poses and it does this by treating the topic of violence with a subtle touch, something absent from much of the film.
Ultimately, the film never answers the question of why it is necessary to tell this story in this particular way. The opening disclaimer claims the film is only loosely inspired by the actual events of the case, but the movie ends with plain text explaining the aftermath of the trial, just as we have come to expect from movies based on true events.
If anything, the disclaimer seems like an excuse to make the film sympathetic to Spector, despite the fact that he was eventually convicted of the murder, but that clearly assumes a lack of intelligence in the audience.
The film could have been much more complex if it had acknowledged Spector’s guilt but still depicted him as a human figure, or even if it had argued that he was entirely innocent. Instead, we get a film that doesn’t make an effort to say anything. Its legacy will likely be as a curiosity, a chance to watch some talented actors deliver Mamet’s writing, rather than a successful film in its own right.