Fox's 'O.J. Simpson Story' is docudrama at its worst

January 31, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

All of the television news images you've seen 1,000 times since O.J. Simpson was charged with murder, you will see once more at 9 tonight on WBFF (Channel 45) when Fox airs "The O.J. Simpson Story."

The "Sugarland Express" escort for the white Ford Bronco, the blood-spattered walkway leading to the Brentwood condo, the baseball bat taken to the windshield of Nicole Brown Simpson's sports car -- they are all in this made-for-TV movie.

"The O.J. Simpson Story" makes "The Amy Fisher Story" look like a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation. "Tonya and Nancy" had more convincing performances and better speaking parts. Nobody connected with this docudrama should hold their breath waiting for the Emmy nominations.

Scenes don't end with a bang or a sizzle in this film; they peter out. They are all constructed from someone's idea of the public record. The actors aren't supposed to actually create characters or breathe life into scenes. They are merely supposed to stand in their assigned spots so we can re-create the O.J. tableaux in our shared memory.

This is a not a docudrama about an athlete turned defendant or a mesmerizing double-murder trial. Rather, it's a docudrama about pictures -- pictures you have seen again and again, ad nauseam. The elements we consider important to quality movie-making -- script, acting, direction -- are secondary to showing us the hot-button images: Simpson in dark glasses with his two children at his wife's funeral; Simpson standing handcuffed under a tree; Simpson and A.C. Cowlings driving the Bronco past onlookers and reporters and finally pulling into the estate.

Bobby Hosea plays Simpson, and the kindest thing that can be said about him is that even a talented actor probably could not have done much with this role. But as barren as Hosea's performance is, it's nothing compared to Jessica Tuck as Nicole Simpson. Tuck's main job seems to be to stare blankly at Simpson -- or, maybe the vacant look is Tuck's main talent. As for Bruce Weitz as attorney Robert Shapiro, who knows, maybe Weitz really needs the money.

The film opens with Nicole Simpson's white Akita walking down a Brentwood street. It is followed by a white stretch limousine silently turning into O.J. Simpson's estate.

If either of these incidents requires explanation, perhaps you should not watch the film. Everything in "The O.J. Simpson Story" hinges on the viewer's desire to see re-creations of events up to and after the murder of Nicole Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman.

The film does not show the murder and does not say O.J. Simpson killed his wife. It does say Simpson beat her repeatedly, though -- an assertion that Simpson's defense attorney Johnnie Cochran challenged in his opening statement in the real trial.

Which brings us to that pesky issue of real-life events vs. media-fabricated versions of them, created for the sole purpose of exploitation. When it comes to Fox Broadcasting and "The O.J. Simpson Story," never has a case of anything-for-an-advertising-dollar been so blatant.

Fox ordered the movie before the Bronco made its exit off the L.A. freeway. The film was slated for premiere week of the fall season in September until a barrage of criticism about its potential impact on jurors forced Fox to delay its debut.

Fox says it's OK to show the film now because the jury has been sequestered. What's not OK, though, is that Fox itself is embarrassed by the film -- it fired the management team that bought the film last summer -- but is still putting it on the air.

Earlier this month, the new president of entertainment at Fox, John Matoian, and one of his new hires, Roger Moore of "TV Nation," separately met with TV critics to tell them how much better the new improved Fox was going to be.

Moore proudly told critics they would not see any more slimy docudramas, like "The O.J. Simpson Story," on the new Fox. When told that Matoian had announced the day before that "O.J." was going to air, Moore then defended the decision by saying Matoian had to air the film to get some of the money back.

Matoian did not deny he was dumping a piece of trash on the public to recoup a few of Rupert Murdoch's bucks.

"The O.J. Simpson Story" is ugly movie-making. It's on the same artistic level as the computer-generated battered face of Nicole Simpson that recently appeared on the front of a tabloid. Don't believe those critics who tell you such docudramas are a campy hoot and we should have fun with them. This is the stuff that debases our national culture.

Maybe it is time for a V-chip control on television sets -- a chip to block such vile filmmaking.

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