David Mamet has always been a writer who prides himself on narrative craftsmanship. He builds a drama like a carpenter builds a chair, conscious of where the stresses are going to fall and looking for the best way to carry them. He's not above following a traditional blueprint either, which is why quite a lot of his dramas and screenplays have an old-fashioned sturdiness about them, the sense of a folk pattern adapted and personalised.
His HBO film Phil Spector was a classic you'll have seen lots of times before – the story of the defence lawyer who signs on as a sceptic and then becomes converted to the cause. Mamet's problem here is that he applied this well-tried template to a real crime – the shooting of Lana Clarkson. It's a marriage of fiction and fact that did not go down well when the film was aired in the States.
The film's ludicrous opening disclaimer tries to pretend it ain't so. “It is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor to comment upon the trial or its outcome,” it runs in part. In that case, it must be mere coincidence that Helen Mirren's lead character, Linda Kenney Baden, shares a name with the female attorney who fought in Spector's corner at the first trial. And that Al Pacino's character happened to produce “You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'” and a host of other Sixties hits. But the truth is that Phil Spector is virtually nothing but a comment on the trial and its outcome – Mamet's motion on appeal.
Mirren's character arrives bronchial and disinclined to help. She thinks he did it but whether he did or not, it's an unwinnable case. “They let OJ go. They let Michael Jackson go,” she says. “They are not going to let him go. They will be trying him for the murder of OJ's wife and they will find him guilty.” Already, you sense her speaking for Mamet and not for herself, surreptitiously crafting the case for unfair process even as she appears to be doing the opposite. And the first hour of the film is a kind of masterclass in jury direction. Mirren summarises the apparently open-and-shut prosecution case, the legal team's background research keeps picking up damning bits of circumstantial evidence and Spector's first appearance is an exercise in the horror rhetoric, the monster finally shuffling into the light after Mirren has ventured alone into a house filled with gothic accessories.
Is Mamet trying to create reasonable doubt in us? Or is he knowingly building a prejudice that he can subsequently shame us for holding? It increasingly seems to be the latter as Baden and Spector get close and the latter is given speeches that make him appear vainglorious and obsessive, but not necessarily murderous. And Baden herself goes full throttle for acquittal, staging various dubious demonstrations that were disallowed in the real courtroom but which Mamet can take full advantage of in his “fiction”. When Spector is put through a rehearsal of his testimony, Baden warns him about losing his temper: “The prosecution is going to do everything in its power to enrage you because that's all they have,” she says. Viewers might not know this to be untrue, but Mamet surely did. And even if you think that reasonable doubt exists, you might question the good taste involved in giving Lara Clarkson's convicted killer a speech that belittles her character.
Phil Spector is never less than competent, a drama of forensic inquiry that understands exactly how to manipulate an audience and which – when it hones in on the techniques of a high-profile American defence – is often fascinating. It also gives Al Pacino a rich opportunity to supply fresh material for Pacino impressionists (Mirren is less assured than usual, as if handicapped by her unpersuasive American accent). But Mamet's drama also feels essentially dishonest, pretending to a candour that it doesn't actually possess. The joints wobble.