David Mamet’s Phil Spector opens with what might be the most peculiar disclaimer I’ve ever seen on a docudrama. Here it is, in full: “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 trail or its outcome.” So we know what the film isn’t… which prompts the rather reasonable question of what the hell it is.
From its opening scenes, it seems to be about lawyers. Aside from a brief and wordless appearance on a security tape, Al Pacino’s embodiment of the title character is absent for much of the first act; it opens with a focus squarely on Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren), who has been brought in by Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor) to aid with the defense of music producer Spector (Al Pacino) — a defense that is already in progress. In fact, Mamet’s screenplay covers such a small sliver of even this case (from this early point through the last day of his first trial, which ended in deadlock) that the title barely seems accurate — it’s not even comparable to a Lincoln or Hitchcock, both of which use a compressed timeframe to tell us something of its subject’s character. Mamet’s film isn’t sure what the hell to make of Spector. But, strangely, that’s part of what makes it so compelling.
Pacino isn’t doing his most subtle acting here, but that’s as it should be — this is not a subtle character. He appears, at first, less as a Spector than a specter, leading Baden through his ornate but caramelized mansion like a guide through his own wax museum, holding court, ranting and raving, muttering and puttering. Pacino gets under this guy’s skin without ever giving us a feeling that we know him — he remains remote and eccentric, a problem for his defense team that becomes, in some strange way, the topic of Mamet’s film.
The dilemma, for Spector’s attorneys, is that “there’s nothing redeeming in our guy.” The physical evidence, the film contends, is non-existent; indeed, had he committed the crime, he should have been covered in it. But Spector is a weirdo, a semi-crazed recluse with a history of threats and gunplay, and how do you soften that for a jury?
These discussions form the bulk of Mamet’s script, in which his punchy, jargon-flavored rat-a-tat-tat dialogue proves a good fit for legal strategizing and lawyerese (as seen in his underrated Broadway production of Race back in 2009). Tambor is particularly adept at handling Mamet’s words; his performance has a directness and implied, impatient intelligence that makes an ideal match. Mirren is totally credible, even if her accent isn’t.
Other supporting players aren’t quite as well used (it’s great to see Chiwetel Ejiofor reteamed with his Redbelt director, but why only bring him in only for one late scene?), some of the writing is so on-the-nose as to be awkward (this is an occasional problem with late-period Mamet), and the use of Spector’s peppy music as counterpoint feels like a lift from the excellent documentary The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector (which is now weirdly difficult to find). But for all of its flaws, for its peculiar brevity (it barely runs 90 minutes) and odd positioning somewhere between fact and fiction, Phil Spector is never less than fascinating. It’s not always clear exactly what Mamet and Pacino are up to, but you have to give them this: they’re never boring.
Phil Spector premieres Sunday on HBO.