'Fantastic Lies': TV Review

Courtesy of SXSW
An absorbing examination of a miscarriage of justice.

The Duke lacrosse scandal makes for compelling material in a lengthy '30 for 30' ESPN documentary.

Like so many other outside observers, I jumped to the wrong conclusion when, in the spring of 2006, an African-American stripper accused three white Duke lacrosse players of raping her.

The story that percolated out of Durham, N.C., in those early days had all of the sensationalistic elements confirming what we think we know about privileged athletes, a protective and elitist academic institution and its parasitic relationship with the less affluent community around it. The Duke lacrosse case looked to feature race, class and town-gown dynamics laid bare for all to see.

Of course, in reality, it did not. The alleged victim was lying, the three players were innocent of these charges and an overzealous prosecutor with political aspirations chose not to care for many months, carried along by outrage from the media and many in the Duke sphere. Those aren't spoilers. This all happened.

ESPN's new 30 for 30 documentary Fantastic Lies, premiering on Sunday night, stops short of parading people who jumped to the wrong conclusions through the town square naked and yelling "Shame!" at them. But you sense that if director Marina Zenovich (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired) had the truly guilty parties available, there would be no hesitation. Even a decade later, the unfolding of the story makes for an unsettling viewing experience.

In this age of seemingly unlimited appetite for "miscarriage of justice" programming, Fantastic Lies finds itself nestled between Netflix's Making a Murderer (overzealous prosecution can run roughshod over the economically disadvantaged, be they guilty or innocent) and FX's People v. OJ Simpson (the economically advantaged, even the probably guilty, can game the system, no matter the mountain of evidence against them). With the Duke lacrosse team, we see how an overzealous prosecution — and Durham County D.A. Mike Nifong is easily worthy of the hatred spewed at Making a Murderer villain Ken Kratz — is no match for the truth, if the truth doesn't lack for money.

Owing largely to Zenovich's options for onscreen subjects, Fantastic Lies becomes predominantly the story of those resources. The doc ends with long lists of people who either declined to be interviewed or were unable to be interviewed for various reasons, a list that includes all three accused lacrosse players, 90 percent of their teammates, their coach, anybody affiliated directly with Duke's administration and anybody affiliated directly with the prosecution. Instead, much of the story is told by a selection of the accused players' parents, who suggest without exception that they never for a second doubted their children and stood by them with wealth and without reservation, and by the team of no-doubt-expensive attorneys who enabled the facts to come out.

The result is that Fantastic Lies plays out with an odd but not ineffective tone as it methodically spends 100+ minutes laying out the established information that has been on the books since 2007 and to which Zenovich hasn't added any new reportage. While several of the accused players speak for themselves as part of archival interviews and press conferences from that horrible year, with Dave Evans' indignant speech giving the doc its title, it's predominantly the story of parents not understanding how the system failed their kids for so long, a filmmaker pointing fingers and a couple of people taking responsibility as best they can. Ruth Sheehan, a local columnist at the time, is somehow forced to represent the totality of the media with her effusive mea culpas. And if former Nifong campaign manager Jackie Brown probably wasn't to blame in the slightest for what her boss did, she shakes her head reprovingly and indicates she knew that wrong was being done.

The documentary premieres on the tenth anniversary of the ill-fated party, but as much as justice can be done in a case that went this pear-shaped, there was resolution by the next spring. There's no cause for Zenovich to aspire to balance and she does not, whether it's well-and-truly smearing the mental health of the accuser, offering no backdrop for previous tensions between Duke and Durham-at-large, ignoring home network ESPN's role on the media side of the kerfuffle and giving no credence to the idea that the lacrosse team was out of control long before the night of a party some acknowledge as inappropriate, even if it wasn't illegal.

In this telling, the players were martyrs, the media was duped, coach Mike Pressler was a saint and Nifong was a monster — and that's not an inappropriate way to approach the story. It's just a matter of whether or not you think specific context played a role in the collective rush to judgment or if you prefer to blame a culture of lazy outrage quick to embrace the narrative that follows our own prejudices. Zenovich goes with the latter, as is her prerogative.

It's inevitable that some audiences will use Fantastic Lies as they've used the entirety of the Duke lacrosse case, as a counterpoint to any accusations of campus sexual assault, particularly sexual assault involving athletes. It's to Zenovich's utmost credit that she keeps her focus completely on this one specific case and makes no connections to anything tangential, nor do any of the talking heads. It'll be left for viewers to make their own leaps, just as some people surely will note that this is now Zenovich's second film about prosecutorial misconduct in a high-profile rape case.

Fantastic Lies will generate the expected outrage in its point-by-point journey through the events of 2006 and 2007. But despite a distance from the events, it's disinterested in the aftermath, which only seems to matter here when the mayor of Durham insinuates that town-gown relations have improved since this case and perhaps because of this case (a contention which surely requires follow-up or clarification). Instead, there are apologies, regrets and a few smug "Toldjas." Maybe deeper conversations will come later.

Premiere date: Sunday, March 13, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)