Phil Spector promises the freak-show spectacle of Al Pacino’s performance as the unhinged recording giant, but the film’s real appeal is watching two titans of acting spar in pure-grade Mametese. The writer-director’s HBO production focuses on Spector’s dealings with Linda Kenney Baden (a razor-sharp Helen Mirren), the last of a series of attorneys to represent him in proceedings that ended in a mistrial. (He was later convicted in the shooting death of Lana Clarkson and is serving a prison sentence of 19 years to life.)
In a work that disclaims itself up front as a big-time dramatization, Baden begins the film persuaded of Spector’s guilt but comes to see reasonable doubt. Mamet relays the pair’s initial meeting—with Spector/Pacino ranting about how the public forgave Ted Kennedy after Chappaquiddick—in agreeably terse terms: “Did you kill that girl?” “I thought attorneys never asked that question.” “I’m the Christmas help, I’m going home.”
Keeping the action spare, theatrical and largely outside of the courtroom proper, Mamet contrives most of the movie as a series of two-handers, making an essentially Socratic argument about the legal system’s potential to try someone on perception. A recent convert to gun wingnuttery, the playwright-filmmaker also dives deep into ballistics demonstrations. Ensconced in a monster-movie mansion, the bewigged and raving Pacino is often offscreen as Mirren’s fast-talking Baden spits out counterarguments and strategy with colleagues (including a very Glengarry Jeffrey Tambor). Given the facts on the ground, there’s not much place for Phil Spector to go, save to depict Spector showing up in court with a ridiculous ’fro he claims is inspired by Jimi Hendrix—mortifying a pneumonia-stricken Baden. Still, the treasurable retorts keep coming. “Did you know your husband is cheating on you?” the attorney asks a woman skeptical of Spector’s innocence. “That’s ridiculous.” “That’s called giving him the benefit of the doubt.”
Phil Spector airs on HBO Sunday 24 at 8pm and will be available on demand the next day.