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Throughout dozens of interviews in FX’s Sin Eater: The Crimes of Anthony Pellicano, one particular description of the whole saga comes up again and again: “It’s like a movie.” And it really is, with its attention-grabbing combination of big money, celebrity scandal and illegal espionage. A drama, perhaps, about the sordid excesses of showbiz. Or one about determined journalists taking a corrupt system to task. Maybe it’s a spy thriller, or a juicy tell-all, or a character study of a villain, or a tragedy about lingering trauma.
Each version of this tale has its undeniable pull, and Sin Eater takes on notes of them all at various points. But if such a multifaceted approach reflects admirable and ambitious intentions, it also scatters its attention — resulting in a gripping docuseries that nevertheless lands more softly than it should.
Sin Eater: The Crimes of Anthony Pellicano
Director: John Pappas
Directed by John Pappas, Sin Eater is loosely split into two parts. The first hourlong episode centers on the private investigator’s rise in the 1990s as the go-to guy for Hollywood’s powerful and embattled. “If there was a high-profile scandal in the 1990s, there was a decent chance that Pellicano was involved,” one reporter explains; Pellicano himself reportedly bragged about his involvement in the Monica Lewinsky, Gennifer Flowers and O.J. Simpson cases. The second is loosely structured around his downfall in the 2000s as he’s arrested, convicted and imprisoned for his wiretapping and racketeering.
Pellicano’s portrait comes into focus through interviews with reporters and victims, archival photographs and footage, audio recordings of his phone calls and eventually a sit-down with the man himself, who was released from prison in 2019. With his sordid history and total lack of remorse, his appeal as a main character is obvious — so much so, he’s said to have been the inspiration behind Showtime’s Ray Donovan, which was created by a writer who’d previously been hired by Pellicano and his producer pal Brad Grey to work on a TV project that fell through.
But even as Sin Eater zeroes in on Pellicano’s unique place in the upper echelons of 1990s Hollywood, its interviewees (which include journalists Liz Day and Rachel Abrams of The New York Times, which produced the documentary) makes the point that he did not exist in a vacuum — that the hotshot lawyers and A-list clients who employed his services are also culpable in the air of deceit and paranoia he cultivated. In one recorded phone call, Pellicano is heard offering to read Chris Rock an illegally obtained police report, and laying out a plan to discredit the woman accusing the comedian of sexual abuse. “Chris Rock might not have broken any laws,” says Abrams. “But certainly what the tape shows is that he raised no objection to being told, I have this, let’s change your story.”
Meanwhile, the series spends significant time with the victims of Pellicano’s dealings, some of whom are still facing the fallout years later. Most prominently featured is Anita Busch, a journalist who dared print a story Pellicano didn’t like, and subsequently suffered a campaign of terror straight out of a mafia movie — down to a dead fish on her windshield to convey that she’d be “sleeping with the fishes” if she didn’t stop her investigation. “When you feel like you’re going to get killed every day for 18 months you live with this trauma,” she says here, two decades later. When she acknowledges that the ordeal pushed her out of journalism entirely, and even now she’s still too paranoid to let her mother know her home address, the pain on her face serves as a haunting reminder of the damage Pellicano left in his wake.
Despite Sin Eater‘s noble intentions, however, the whole thing ends up feeling like slightly less than the sum of its parts. Its tendency to skip backwards and forwards in time, from one case to the next and back again, slows the momentum and blunts the impact of each individual tale. And although we hear repeatedly how panicked Hollywood was by Pellicano’s arrest, fearing he’d spill their darkest secrets, the docuseries’ actual reveals tend to be vague — constrained by Pellicano’s tendency to operate in the shadows and his commitment, to this day, to keeping his mouth shut.
“It’s fair to wonder how lives could have turned out differently if Anthony Pellicano hadn’t been working for Michael Jackson in 1993,” Day reflects of the fact that Pellicano had coerced a 10-year-old Wade Robson and his family into defending the singer from accusations of child molestation, years before Robson would go on to detail his own abuse by Jackson in 2019’s Leaving Neverland. But given few details on what precisely Pellicano did, or on how much sway it had over the outcome of the case — or even on whether his tactics were unusually dishonest in comparison to those of his peers — it’s difficult to know what precisely would have changed without him.
In the wake of #MeToo and other social and political movements laying bare the systems that protect those with power at the expense of those without it, it’s plain enough to see Sin Eater‘s point that Pellicano was more a symptom of elite entitlement than the disease itself. Indeed, this idea is what lends the docuseries its gravity, turning it into more than just vintage gossip. Late in the second episode, a journalist expresses her frustration that although Pellicano was convicted, those who’d so eagerly deployed him — including famous lawyers like Dennis Wasser, Marty Singer and Bert Fields — mostly got off scot free. But Sin Eater‘s own focus on Pellicano, at the expense of a more incisive look at his prominent friends, would seem only further proof of how effectively he did what he did: Here he is, once again taking the heat so the people he’s chosen to protect don’t have to.
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