Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: "Phil Spector"

Director: David Mamet
Runtime: 92 minutes

Only a few months ago, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty was kicking up controversy in regards to its depiction of torture, as well as its alleged accuracy. Despite having access to top-level information and testimonials about the hunt for bin Laden and the raid on his compound, the film was still subjected to scrutiny (some appropriate, and some overblown). This was, after all, a film trying to be faithful to history...or at least to the history that was put forth to Bigelow and Mark Boal from their sources. Yet despite this controversy, Zero Dark Thirty's overall artistic integrity has (deservedly) remained intact. Whatever mistakes there were, the film captures, if not factually, then at least thematically and emotionally, a complicated slice of modern American history. 

Yet what happens when a film takes a similarly well-known (and much more intimate) piece of history, and decides to throw out any pretense of accuracy? You end up with something like Phil Spector, the latest movie/prestige project from HBO. Despite depicting some very real events, the film declares outright that it is a work of fiction about real people and real events (in this case, the first trial of Phil Spector, which ended in a mistrial). 

It's a bold creative choice on behalf of writer/director David Mamet, and it allows him to toy with reality without the scrutiny that often comes with projects based on real people and events.  But for some it will also prove slightly troubling, as Mamet's film plays with the facts to make a point about a man who, guilty or not, has been cemented in the minds of millions as something of a grotesque weirdo. Above all else, that seems to be the point of Mamet's creative decisions: this Phil Spector (and possibly the real one), was ultimately convicted because of who he was, regardless of what he did

But even though Spector (Al Pacino) is the title character of the film, he's not exactly Mamet's protagonist. That would be attorney Linda Baden (Helen Mirren), who guided Spector through his first trial. For nearly 20 minutes, Mamet introduces us to Baden, who is initially desperate to leave her office and boss (Jeffrey Tambor) behind so that she can take a vacation. Yet after some persuasion, Baden takes on Spector's case, even as her health begins to suffer (she eventually winds up with pneumonia).

Appropriately, Baden truly becomes invested in the case once she (and we as the audience) first meet Spector in his mansion, complete with some wonderfully eccentric decor. In large part, this is because Pacino, though playing a bit towards the surface, grabs the role by the reins and never lets go. Initially casual and dismissive of the charges, as time passes he begins to crumble under the pressure of the accusations, media scrutiny, and protests. 

As easy as it is for Pacino to venture into histrionics, he largely keeps the fire beautifully under control, and only unleashes his fury when necessary. In the film's most on-point sequence, Spector loses his cool not in the actual court room, but in a staged mock trial designed to prepare him for testifying. Said mock trial takes place in a fully dressed stage, with lights and props, yet also gaps that allow us to see into the dark corners of the sound stage. It's the film's and Pacino's best moment, and it only makes sense that one of the film's most passionate sequences is also one of its most clearly artificial, given the opening disclaimer. 

Mirren, on the other hand, is much more grounded as the increasingly weary (and sick) Baden. For much of the film, which runs a brisk 90 minutes, Mirren is the straight man to Pacino's slowly-unravelling eccentric. Her presence is certainly welcome, but Mamet's screenplay favors Pacino when it comes to interesting dialogue and engaging moments. Only in the final act does Baden really start to come to life as a character, and Mirren captures her mix of exhaustion and don't-screw-with-me attitude with understated elegance. 

Where Phil Spector falls short comes down to its willingness (or lack thereof)  to probe the psyches of its characters. Mamet knows how to write lively, sharp dialogue, and he guides his performers well, while also displaying a level-headed control of tone and pacing. Yet beneath the words on the page, there isn't much more. The film is strictly a slice of the moment for Spector, Baden, and the rest. While the script does make nice tie-ins to its idea that Spector was really found guilty of being a creep, as a character he's not much more than a creep (albeit one with a huge god complex). 

Mamet captures the fascinating and eccentric surface of Spector, but doesn't go far beyond that. If anything, it's Pacino's performance that elevates the material, and makes this problem less noticeable until after the credits roll. Unlike the aforementioned Zero Dark Thirty, Phil Spector's scope is much less expansive, which leaves the film feeling less well-rounded than Bigelow's film. Zero Dark Thirty captured both one woman's journey, as well as a wide-reaching, decade-spanning moral grey zone of American history. All that Phil Spector has is one eccentric, one attorney, and a trial that we never even see. Mamet may make his point concisely, but he does so at the expense of creating a film with more substantive and meaningful results. 

Grade: B/B-

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