‘June 17, 1994’: You Just Can’t Believe That Reality Is Real

“This is not a heroic run. This is a tragedy that is unfolding right now.” O.J. Simpson and Al Cowlings’ ride on the 405 some 16 years ago remains a vivid collective memory. Again and again, the scene inspired comparisons between Simpson’s past and present, the brilliant football career and the increasingly absurd slow-motion chase. Followed for miles by police cruisers and press choppers, the white Ford Bronco became a blank screen against which they projected any number of questions, explanations, and jokes.

That blank screen is at the center of June 17, 1994. And Brett Morgen’s documentary, premiering this week as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, goes a next step, setting the O.J. chase alongside other sports events that took place on that same day. These include Arnold Palmer playing his last round at a U.S. Open and the start of the FIFA World Cup in Chicago. And as you see Bill Clinton declaring soccer “a universal language that binds us all together,” you also see the Manhattan parade in honor of the Rangers’ Stanley Cup, Ken Griffey Jr.’s pursuit of a single season home run record, and, of course, the fifth game of the NBA finals, pitting the Knicks against the Rockets at Madison Square Garden. Each of these events is surely memorable on its own: as they come together here, however, they tell another story — about how TV shapes memory and history.

As smart as that story may be, the form it takes in June 17, 1994 is frankly brilliant. This film about TV is comprised of TV, a collection of clips culled from that day and before. Cutting from one moment to another, as if you’re clicking a remote, the documentary makes clear connections that are usually left obscured, the connections that create TV viewers’ views of the world.

“This is one of those cases,” observes one TV anchor during the O.J. chase, “where you just can’t believe that reality is real.”

Indeed. While it’s safe to say that the Simpson story eclipsed the others on that day and afterwards, seeing them arranged in this artful chronology suggests the concurrently arbitrary and determinative nature of TV, its ephemeral and also lasting order. Here the day begins with Arnold on the course in Oakmont, PA, cameras hovering and commentators commemorating. A cut to the “media gauntlet” in Simpson’s LA driveway begins the day again. When, at 1:55pm, LAPD Commander David Gascon deems the Juice “a fugitive from justice right now,” the day’s appalling and abject aspects grind into gear. When the Bronco is spotted and a police negotiator pleads with Simpson to please toss the gun out the window, to think of his children, the screen becomes less legible: Cowlings’ blurred face in the windshield, a shadow that might be his passenger. As the Rangers have found a way to lift their curse back East, in California the sun is setting.

As these stories unfold in TV’s perversely linear present, the film looks back too, with brief bits of archival footage: Simpson barrels downfield as a Trojan, signs with the Bills (“Miami has the oranges,” submits Howard Cosell, “but Buffalo has the Juice”), leaps over suitcases for Hertz. When he enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985, he makes a speech, thanking “my wife Nicole, who came into my life at what is probably the most difficult time for an athlete, at the end of my career. And she turned those years into some of the best years I’ve had in my life.” The camera cuts to Nicole Brown Simpson, low-angled and unsmiling.

Even as this image makes you catch your breath, the next reminds you why. The murder scene, sidewalk bloody and cops milling, is too familiar now, though it was shocking then. The very doubleness of your response makes the point, that TV is always past and present at once, reframing time so it can be continuous and simultaneous. The narration over Palmer’s progress from one hole to another turns from anticipation to commemoration (a commentator notes “what this man has meant to the sport of golf and to so many fans of the sport of golf”). As Palmer misses a putt now, a younger Arnold smiles and “plays to win with Wilson,” his black-and-white ad eternally present.

Even as the movie makes a case for TV’s capacity to consume and restructure time, it also reminds you of how vague, how inelegant, and how wrong its narratives can be. Again and again, voices weigh in on Simpson’s case. “His conduct here suggests that his psyche has surrendered to the truth, that he has committed a homicide,” intones one PhD. “Death is the ultimate way to close your eyes to truth.” Really.

Patrick Ewing runs up the court in New York. Bob Costas worries about restructuring the broadcast “I don’t know when you’re gonna come to me on camera,” he says, on camera. “I’ve already said that I’m Bob Costas.” And so he starts again: “This is Bob Costas. It is our professional obligation to cover the ballgame tonight in what we hope is an appropriate fashion. We are, of course, mindful of the O.J. Simpson situation and we will apprise you of any developments.” The Bronco comes on screen, and Larry King asks, “Police believe that O.J.’s in the car right now?”

Right now. The liveness causes confusion, complicates the storytelling. An anchor in LA tells two stories at once. Considering Cowlings, she observes, “We can only speculate as to the role he’s playing her.” Pause. “Obviously one of negotiator.” We can only speculate. And we can assert what’s obvious. Or what’s believed — by police, by reporters, by experts brought in to structure the images. Costas appears on screen, his face being made up and asking his producer what’s coming: “Um Kelly? You’re not gonna do like an effect or anything? So, when we come up, we’re gonna be in double boxes? Single to start?”

Whether or not he gets answers to his questions, Costas on TV remains concerned about how he looks and what he’ll say, ever single, ever double, ever present, ever past. And in June 17, 1994, he does it again.

RATING 10 / 10