The Truth Hurts
I was among those befuddled when David Mamet was first tasked with writing and directing Phil Spector, but it makes sense now. Lies are ingrained in his repertoire, his works famous for including rampant manipulation and truths forever in flux. Considering the circus that was its eponymous subjectís real-life trial, Phil Spector gave Mamet carte blanche to flex these themes in darn near any manner he wished. Unfortunately, rather than wade through the ethical quagmire of spin-doctoring or explore the frazzled psyche of an unreliable witness, this HBO-bred production settles for a passionless recap of true events that, in its self-proclaimed attempts at objectivity, sacrifices any point at which it couldíve arrived.
No one knows for sure what went down at the home of music mogul Phil Spector (Al Pacino) on February 3, 2003. All thatís certain is that actress Lana Clarkson was found dead of a gunshot wound, and Spector -- innovator and creator of some of historyís most memorable pop tunes -- was named prime suspect. But pleading innocent and positive that Clarksonís death was a suicide, Spector mounts a shaky defense for what appears to be an unwinnable case. Initially brought in as an advisor, attorney Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren) ends up being fully drafted into service, taking it upon herself to find any angle from which she might sway the jury. Clarksonís substance abuse, Spectorís frail physical state -- Baden leaves no stone unturned in her quest for any way to cast her client in a favorable light. But her own worst enemy may turn out to be Spector, whose erratic behavior and bizarre appearance make his innocence exceptionally difficult to prove.
Phil Spector announces forthright that it has no intentions of passing judgment on the real case it depicts. I can believe that Mamet had no desire to vilify or glorify Spector but merely to use his story as the springboard for a complex drama not unlike one of his most controversial creations, Oleanna. But similar to that playís own film version, Phil Spector isnít as fair and balanced as it likes to think, declaring itself a neutral party while nudging our allegiances in a certain direction, inadvertently or not. Mamet wants us to absorb the proceedings through the eyes of Baden, an outsider with no personal stake in the trialís outcome, but we see her grasp at straws and an emotionally volatile Spector being kooky more than we ever empathize with their dire straits. It also doesnít help that although the film covers Badenís case-building in great detail and almost entirely disregards the trial itself, we donít for a moment understand whatís motivating her to fight both the odds and pneumonia to get some weirdo off scot-free.
I like to joke about particular movies feeling as if theyíve had an hourís worth of plot cut out of them, but Phil Spector really leaves you with this impression. A 90-minute running time seems mighty slim for something based on a story as crazy as Spectorís, especially when it swears by a supposedly ambiguous perspective. Mamet tries injecting verve into all the legalese with his patented, intentionally-clipped dialogue, which the cast has no difficulty delivering with gusto. Ultimately, however, itís no substitute for character development, the lack of which supplies most of the actors with more opportunities than actual reasons for getting all emotional. Pacino has it easier, since his trademark angry outbursts arenít far off from how the real Spector was known to act, but Mirren isnít as lucky, for Baden is often left looking as if sheís trying to make busywork appear really, really dramatic. Faces like Jeffrey Tambor and Chiwetel Ejiofor (from Mametís Redbelt) also pop up sometimes but only stick around just long enough to fill arbitrary roles the narrative could have easily done without.
Phil Spector is no exploitative movie of the week, nor does it share compelling insight into an obviously troubled soul. Itís a non-event, a film of little mystique whose pedigree behind and in front of the camera is all thatís stopping it from being a ďDateline NBCĒ dramatic re-enactment with a bigger budget. Thereís an incredible movie to be made out of this episode in modern pop culture, but if Phil Spector is the best a director of Mametís caliber can do, Iím nervous to see what the next guy has in store.
Phil Spector is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.
(Released by HBO & Cinemax; not rated by MPAA.)