American Crime Story

The People v. OJ Simpson Hits The Mark

American Crime Story takes storytelling risks; great acting pays them off (again).

To spend proportionately as much of American Crime Story's screentime on the notorious Fuhrman tapes as the real-life trial seemed to, especially so close to the end of a limited run, is a questionable decision from a narrative standpoint. The matter of Laura Hart McKinny's tapes of Fuhrman, recorded for a screenplay that never sold, read then and now as one of those dreams where you're trying to retrieve something on the other side of an oblivious crowd, and you can never quite get there, waylaid or distracted or unable to stand upright. First the defense had to truck to North Carolina to get the tapes, then the matter of Judge Ito's wife claiming she hadn't known Fuhrman rears its head, then another judge has to rule on the recusal -- the rabbithole just kept corkscrewing away from the murders, somehow.

But it works; it recaptures what that section of the trial felt like, and American Crime Story's ability to put us back in 1995 and feel the potential import of every little ruling is what makes it so effective. That and the actors, and putting this corps to work with this subject isn't a decision at all; it's a no-brainer. (If only Wet Hot American Summer's Marguerite Moreau as McKinny had gotten more than a handful of lines.) The shotmaking is a little too showy sometimes -- one shot of the cameras mounted at the ceiling joint is helpful; the focus pull from them to a brooding Ito is not -- and not everyone is up to his or her respective task, but the cumulative effect of the combined focus on the tapes and the reactions to them is a queasy short-temperedness in the viewer, the same one we see in the principals.

Let's rank the acting moments of "Manna From Heaven" from great work to "needs work."

  1. Reaction the first to Christopher Darden losing it.
    I love how this is directed, and of course how it's executed by Sarah Paulson, as Darden slams down his briefcase and looms up on Clark all "I TOLD YOU not to use Fuhrman." The default direction and response is, I think, to have the woman flinch or look away, but this woman wouldn't have, or have wanted to.

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    She's not afraid of him, she's not angry at him; she's chastened. She knows he's right, and she's sorry that that hurts. Wherever the trust between Clark and Darden is from scene to scene, there is a deep trust and shared confidence between these two actors that's really something to see.

  2. Reaction the second to Christopher Darden losing it.
    An interesting variation by Courtney B. Vance here on the way Paulson's Clark met Darden's righteous wrath, because at first Cochran is afraid, or at least startled, concerned Darden is going to enter his physical space.

    Then it becomes something else.

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    Somethings, really: he's stricken, first by Darden's anger but then by his role in it and then by Darden's larger point, that this is not a show.

  3. "HA-Ha!" v. "...Bitch," Round 2
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    Everyone's a winner.

  4. Does Sterling K. Brown think I'm made of money?
    Because every time he throws Marcia Clark this look

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    it's a flatscreen TV and two pairs of pants damaged beyond repair by fire-extinguisher foam. Quit it, foxy, shit's getting expensive.

  5. Poor Steven Pasquale.
    I pray he got the tape VO on the first take, because I can't imagine it's much easier saying the N-word 33 times in the Fuhrman role than it is hearing it in the others. The temptation to cheat to the audience by overacting and making Fuhrman a cartoonish boasting turd must have been enormous, and I admire Pasquale's resistance.

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    The banality of evil indeed. Pasquale's quite good in another area, too; he doesn't really look that much like Fuhrman, but when Fuhrman takes the stand the second time and repeatedly asserts his Fifth Amendment privilege, Pasquale nails Fuhrman's vaguely bored, blandly unruffled mien. He didn't look nervous, he didn't look sorry, he didn't look much of any kind of way. You get the occasional flicker of stress from Pasquale, but Fuhrman's general air of unconcern is part of what made him so fascinatingly repellent. So..."compellent," I guess.

  6. Gil Garcetti can't decide whether to shit or go blind.
    But he's almost definitely going to do that first thing when he hears the Peggy York part of the Fuhrman tapes.

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    Hat tip to Bruce Underwood for that flawless "my bowels are now lava" face.

  7. "Fuhrman framed me!"
    Robert Kardashian's isn't sure which is worse: that OJ probably has come to believe that this is really the case; or that the jury is definitely going to vote as though this is really the case. So he goes with Door #3, turn grey and try not to hurl on OJ's court suit.

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  8. Tick...tick...Bob.
    The opinion that John Travolta is killing it as Robert Shapiro is not, I think, the majority view, and in fact, qua Shapiro imitation, the blowup in the elevator isn't Travolta's best work.

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    What it does do, without vanity, is get at the fear I think Shapiro felt that their leveraging of Fuhrman was going to boomerang, a literal and physical anxiety about reprisals against "the man" -- and against Shapiro personally, a closing of ranks against him socially. It isn't very appealing, but it is real, and Travolta's performance perfectly highlights how much the trial was shaped by sheer self-absorption and territoriality.

  9. Just because Shawn Chapman finally got a couple lines doesn't mean you have to yell them, Angel Parker.
    I understand why Parker overshot any nuance in that scene. She's playing a woman we know nearly nothing about, and is historically limited to following the lead attorneys' arguments with her eyes, so when Chapman is called on not just to speak but to react to an Ito fiat with angry tears, the result is a little Drama Club. Still: not great.
  10. Better than whatever rockets'-Fred-glare thing is going on here, though.
    Fred Goldman did and does wear his emotions on his sleeve in full color, so it's hard to go too big in a portrayal of the man.

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    Not impossible, though! ...Joseph Siravo may have a similar "pent-up acting creates sonic boom when released" problem to Parker's, so I'm sympathetic, but it doesn't show well compared to the nuances other players have found.

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