The images of the idyllic Duke University campus in Durham, North Carolina that flint across "Fantastic Lies" as it opens, come, in the light that follows, to resemble the New England woods of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, a sixty-three year old play which nonetheless retains great relevancy today, never more so than in the case of Duke Lacrosse players accused – strike that! – falsely accused of gang rape in 2006. It was a story sensationalized in the media that is smartly, necessarily told mostly without sensationalism in "Fantasic Lies", an especially pointed entry to ESPN's ongoing 30 for 30 documentary series.
On the night of March 13, 2006, the Duke Lacrosse team, several members shared a house, hired two female strippers. The next morning, one of the women would report a rape, and what ensued was essentially a trial and conviction that played out not in the courtroom but in public, one proffered by the District Attorney, Mike Nifong, who transformed himself into a crusader for justice even if behind the scenes his actions were so deplorable he would eventually be disbarred. Director Marina Zenovich was unable to interview either the accuser, Crystal Mangum, or Nifong, as well as the three players accused, and yet the absence of these prominent participants enhances – or perhaps directly influences – how she chooses to present this documentary.
One of the accused players' mothers is interviewed and she indicates that no one talked to her son then and no one has talked to her son since, which becomes a kind of damning confession of a public that was so desperate to say "You did it!" before they had even heard every side to the story. And in re-examining the case, one that was never actually brought to trial, Zenovich doesn’t so much seek the truth, since that’s already known, as re-prosecute those who rendered a verdict before all the facts were in. Its aim, in other words, is to indict a culture moving at warp speed, where judgment is rendered swiftly and harshly, in which events are too often politicized before they are even examined.
"Fantastic Lies" recounts the entire ordeal linearly, laying out the story with accompanying archival footage of then and innumerable talking heads now, eliciting the sensation of looking back on what happened rather than telling it anew. This tinges the entire story with an air of regret, never more so than with former newspaper columnist Ruth Sheehan who wrote an article in the aftermath of the initial accusation essentially ordering the Duke players to come forward and confess what they knew. In the end, of course, all they knew is that they were innocent, and as Zenovich has Sheehan re-read parts of that article on camera, the columnist’s shame seeps out. It wasn't just Sheehan, of course, as the doc makes clear, also interviewing a journalist Newsweek, referencing the New York Times and offering footage of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, as well as campus protesters, instantly decrying the incident. Essentially everyone was jumping to the same conclusion, a fuel that was fired by Nifong.
If there is a principal villain, Zenovich paints it less as Crystal Mangum, whose history of mental illness is mentioned if never really explored, and more as Mr. Nifong, who plunged ahead with the case even when it seemed to become apparent that Magnum's story in no way added up. We see him do interview after interview, transforming himself into a media star, seemingly to further his career and guarantee victory in his up-coming re-election. But that is primarily speculation. The most telling shot of Nifong is in the courtroom, from behind, showing only the back of his head, which seems to emblemize just how desperately we all wish we could probe his mind and figure out what a human acting so recklessly with other human lives could possibly be thinking.
If the evidence made obvious that the accuser's story was false, this has a way of framing the film as something of an underdog story, which, frankly, feels wrong-handed, one of the defense lawyers even going so far as to reference their case in terms of a sports movie. This is the biggest lacrosse game of your life, one of the fathers says he told his son, which, while I see the analogy he's attempting to draw, doesn't quite fly. The film's overriding argument is to view these matters from a cold-eyed vantage point, and such syrupy add-ons actually hinder that argument, if never near enough to harm the overall message.
Zenovich does not shy away from addressing the lacrosse's team culture of hard-partying and alienation of others on campus. There were, as is pointed out, racial taunts directed at the strippers, and even if the ghastly email regarding the incident that was leaked after the fact was, to those who got the reference, simply text taken from "American Psycho", well, the guy still chose to use those words. Most humor is underlaid with some modicum of truth. But these distinctions are important because it's a reminder that we have to put them away in the case of criminal accusations, that it is our duty to base our verdict solely upon the evidence, without prejudice or sympathy, a civic obligation that too often anymore, as "Fantastic Lies" makes clear, falls by the wayside.