04/08/2013 05:13 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2013

Judge, Jury and Record Producer: A Critic Looks at Phil Spector

We owe the special nuance of the word "innocent" to a striking case of mistaken identity. The word derives from a composite of the Latin negation prefix in -- with nocere, meaning "guilty" or "evil." But over time, the root word was confused with noscere, meaning "to know." As a result, English speakers don't think twice about using the same adjective for lack of guilt and lack of guile; clean hands and wide eyes. Of course, guilt and knowledge have been tangled up since the Garden of Eden. In Phil Spector, his latest film for HBO, writer/director David Mamet unapologetically plays with what we think we know about the legendary record producer found guilty of murder in 2009. The result is an interrogation, not of Mr. Spector's innocence, but of our own.

On the evening of Feb. 3, 2003, Lana Clarkson (a faded beauty whose minor roles in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Scarface led her to lead work in Amazon Women on the Moon and Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II) went home with Spector after her shift at West Hollywood's House of Blues. Within an hour, she was dead with a gunshot wound tearing from the inside of her mouth through the back of her skull. Spector was tried twice for her death. The second time, he was found guilty of murder in the second degree.

It's peculiar, then, that Mamet wrote Phil Spector as a fictionalized run-up to the first trial, which ended in a hung jury. At first, it seems like a retrospective appeal for Spector's exoneration. But Phil Spector is considerably more than its plot (that is, a flatfooted legal drama that runs short and ends unresolved). It is a ruse on the part of a seasoned rhetorician to implicate his viewers in a fantasy of innocence.

Our indictment begins with an emphatic opening statement. "This is a work of fiction," reads a black card in the wake of HBO's signature white noise.

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 trial or its outcome.

Considering pithier justifications have cleared the way for acts of historical revisionism as recent (and flagrant) as Argo and Inglourious Basterds, this disclaimer so forcefully braces us for fiction that when we're met with Mamet's convincing portrayal of real people and events, we're unwilling to let the facts -- for example, that attorney-client privilege barred Mamet from exchanges between Spector and his attorney -- spoil either the narrative or, thanks to Al Pacino, our viewing pleasure.

The effect is a firsthand experience of Mamet's unnerving theory of justice: namely, that it is neither a precept of natural law nor the consequence of social contract, but merely a passing judgment of theatrics. The opening scene is a flurry of legalese between attorneys Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor) and Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren), after which Mamet throws us into the back seat as Baden drives to meet her notorious client for the first time. The imposing mansion that looms is less reminiscent of Spector's Alhambra residence than it is of Xanadu (indeed, all throughout, it's hard to ignore Mamet nodding to Orson Welles's canonical character study of our cinema's first misanthropic, megalomaniacal mogul, Citizen Kane).

Alone and in the rain, Baden presses her hand against the mansion's door, and lo! it yawns wide open. We may as well be in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Baden fumbles through a series of corridors, passing all the familiar décor we'd expect from an eccentric monster's castle: dim lighting, crimson furnishings, a disembodied suit of armor, etc. This isn't just an entrance into Phil Spector's home; it is Baden's (and our) first descent into his psyche. Mr. Pacino emerges from the darkness as Phil Spector incarnate, crooning "Abraham, Martin and John," Dion's popular tribute to three of America's iconic social reformers - all victims of assassination. Spector winds Baden deeper into his labyrinth, decrying the charges against him as crucifixion for having defined American music from doo-wop to punk. Very probably, this is the monologue of the year: the writing is hypercontrolled, high-flown and street-smart; Pacino's performance an exquisite free fall.

Mirren, for her part, appears to have swallowed whole the pantheon of Law and Order's ball-busting heroines. It's a bait and switch: The easier we gloss over her character, the more comfortably we assume her role's perspective. Gradually, she comes to see Spector as a hapless ingénue frogmarched into the klieg lights. And so do we: the deeper we sink into Spector's mind, the more his stylized freakishness seems charming, even grand; his dissociation like naïveté; his singular flavor of insanity like genius. These notions toggle subliminally with the idea that Phil Spector might actually be innocent. In the one brief courtroom scene, Pacino stares up into space, open-mouthed, bobbing his head in silent punctuations. The camera pans to his hands trembling, jotting chords to what could only be the next hit single harmonizing in his mind. At this point, his arraignment is moot; we're in the court of human pathos, and the only possible verdict is that this man is a living national treasure. And living with Alzheimer's, to boot.

But is this enough to dissipate the murderous doubts hanging around him? Possibly. Inevitably, hearts will sink when a closing card reports that Baden was unable to defend Spector in his second trial, and that he is now serving 19-years-to-life in the California state prison system. The point Mamet appears to be making is that innocence is not a pure state of being to be detected by a jury of one's peers. Our judgment of another's innocence is, rather, a rigorous test of our own principles. If we the viewers find Phil Spector innocent, even momentarily, then we've equated nocer with noscere, wide-eyes with clean hands; we've forgiven him only because, so to speak, he knows not what he's done.