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Acting great in 'not based on a true story'

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Is it unreasonable to expect greatness from the great?

That's a key question when considering a TV movie that stars Oscar winners Al Pacino and Helen Mirren, and was written and directed by acclaimed playwright and screenwriter David Mamet.

When talents of such a soaring level converge, an end product that's pretty good isn't nearly good enough.

And so it is with Phil Spector, the HBO-produced TV-movie drama that premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO Canada. It's a tidily paced story that has something to do with the murder trial of a famous music producer, and its structure allows formidable actors numerous opportunities to show how good they are at making scripted drama seem very impressively dramatic. But in the end, one is left wondering just exactly has been accomplished, and why.

Consider the disclaimer -- probably the most unique and confounding you'll ever read -- that appears onscreen before Phil Spector begins:

"This is a work of fiction. It's not 'based on a true story.' It's 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."

So here's another question, then: When a movie carries the name of a real person as its title, and includes a storyline that reflects actual historical events in that person's life, is a briefly displayed disclaimer enough to separate the film's makers from the audience's inevitable assumption that a movie named after a person is actually about that person?

It's a sticky business, and this uncomfortable fictional-fact tap dance ultimately distracts from some fine work onscreen.

Phil Spector is focused on the first of two trials the idiosyncratic record-industry pioneer (played by Pacino) faced after being charged with the 2003 murder of actress and alleged fame-seeker Lana Clarkson. The woman died of a single gunshot wound to the head, from a pistol that was fired while the barrel was in her mouth.

Police and the prosecution determined that Spector, a known accumulator of guns who had been accused in the past of keeping women in his home against their will, at gunpoint, shot Clarkson. Spector's claim was that Clarkson, depressed and deeply intoxicated, committed suicide while he was in the room.

With his defence lawyers scrambling to come up with a strategy that might somehow convince a jury to acquit their highly unlikable client, lead attorney Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor) seeks out Linda Kenney Baden (Mirren) in the hope she can find an angle they can exploit.

At first, she dismisses the case as a no-hope loser; after meeting with Spector in his cavernous and creepy mansion, however, she becomes intrigued with the man and begins to immerse herself in the case.

By the time she's forced to decide whether to put Spector on the stand to testify in his own defence, events have unfolded in a manner that leaves her as pretty much the only person who still has a reasonable doubt about his guilt.

Phil Spector is, for its trio of lead actors, a vehicle that allows them to do some really entertaining acting. Mirren is restrained but resolute as the lawyer who literally makes herself sick with the amount of effort she commits to her task, and Tambor, the ever-reliable sideman, is rock solid in every scene he inhabits.

Pacino is, well, Pacino, for all the good and bad that can entail. He can be a chewer of scenery at times, but when he holds himself in check, he's magnificent. He's mostly great here, as he so deeply immerses himself in the character that it's actually possible to ignore the rotating schedule of absurd wigs Spector parades around on a daily basis.

The story doesn't really go anywhere (neither, in the real world, did Spector's first trial, which ended with a deadlocked jury), but perhaps the point is that it doesn't have to. The guy who wrote it says the whole thing is made up anyway, and shouldn't be believed.

Is it worth watching Phil Spector? The view here is that yes, it is. If nothing else, it's a chance to watch great actors doing good work. Just keep in mind that anything you might think you learn about Phil Spector by tuning in is something its writer/director has emphatically claimed he had no intention of teaching you. Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2013 G3

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