Sometimes current television is not just better, but so much better, than films playing in the theater. A case in point: “The People v. O.J. Simpson: An American Crime Story,” playing on, of all places, FX. Like the original case itself, the current mini-series will always be a kind of Rorschach test. It will be accused of being too hard on O.J., too soft on him, and racist in one direction or another. But no matter what your opinion is on O.J.’s guilt or innocence, the 10-part series is well worth the watch (Be warned: there is occasional R-rated language).
It’s directed by Ryan Murphy, the creator of Glee, Nip/Tuck, American Horror Story, and Scream Queens. He’s been working a more mainstream route of late, having directed the film version of Eat, Pray, Love and The Normal Heart. “The People vs. OJ Simpson” could, and perhaps would, have benefited from a cooler, less candy-coated visual style. But the quick pacing, editing and camerawork take what could have been a large-scale version of a crime procedural like “Law and Order” and keeps the story moving, even when the trial is stopped or slowed again and again by unforeseen events.
But what really stands out are the focus and the acting. The focus is not on OJ. It’s on Marcia Clark, the head prosecutor. It’s her story, and on paper that sounds like a bad choice. On the contrary, it makes the whole series come alive. Part of the reason for that is the script, which balances the personal with the procedural. The other, bigger, reason is the Emmy-deserving performance of Sarah Paulson as Clark. She is strong, weak, funny, edgy, and completely sympathetic. Paulson doesn’t miss a beat and imbues her character with so much life that she constantly keeps us focused on her and keeps us happy to have her as the center of the drama.
Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran is excellent as the self-centered, talented, defense lawyer only concerned with winning. I would have put him as the second-best actor in the series after Paulson save for the exceptional work done by Sterling K. Brown as the second counsel, Christopher Darden, who worked alongside Marcia Clark. His performance is as introverted as Vance’s is extraverted, but it’s a star-making turn, fully lived. The sparks between him and Paulson (in more ways than one) are palpable, and they are a delight to watch together. In some ways, Darden, compared to Cochran, is the most difficult character to play well, and another actor might have lost his way with Clark, Vance and the others chewing the scenery around him. Brown doesn’t let that happen for a second.
One of the reasons this got made was the production presence of John Travolta, which of course was tied to his performing a role. Here he plays peacock Robert Shapiro as an effete dandy who clearly thinks the world of himself. It’s an “interesting” acting choice, but one that tends to stick out and not always in the best ways. In a similar manner, Nathan Lane’s F. Lee Bailey isn’t quite on the money, either, as his character has a more serious center than Lane is able to locate. Kenneth Choi as Judge Ito and the ever-reliable Bruce Greenwood as Gil Garcetti are solid, if nothing else.
The two question marks are David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, who struggles more and more with the evidence against his good friend. Schwimmer has the advantage of looking something like Kardashian, and his hangdog “charm” helps him as he draws us into his internal conflicts. (Of course it’s a guilty pleasure to see his children pre-fame.)
The biggest acting weakness is Cuba Gooding, Jr. as OJ.. For one, he is nowhere near as physically imposing as OJ, which removes the strong element of his power and strength. Gooding is also at heart an actor we connect with, enjoy, and generally sympathize with. If that were the goal, it might work. But the rest of the show connects us with his guilt and Marcia Clark’s point of view. Like Denzel Washington in Training Day, (and I know I’m in the minority here), Gooding simply doesn’t have the internal scary wickedness necessary for the part. We should be uneasy in his scenes; we’re not. He tries hard, and pulls out all the tricks he has in his arsenal. But it’s not enough, and the clash between actor and character renders him as something of an undefined presence in the piece. It’s the one real weakness in the program.
Of course you know the ending. That doesn’t matter, as this provides information and perspectives that reconstruct the case in the viewer’s mind. We all knew how Titanic ended as well, but a lot of people thought that movie worth seeing, many more than once. “The People vs. OJ Simpson” is easily that exciting, and far more important to our understanding of American justice, race, grandstanding, manipulation, and celebrity.