'McMartin': trial mania on HBO

Before there was O. J., the trial, there was the McMartin case.

For people with short or leaky memories, the McMartin case was the longest, most-expensive criminal trial in American history. Beginning with indictments in 1983, it took more than six years and $16 million to complete.


It was the first trial to be televised, with recaps often provided on the evening news. It set off a tabloid hysteria.

At McMartin's core was the prosecution of a family of day-care providers on charges of child molestation. It bankrupted the defendants and destroyed the political ambitions of two Los Angeles district attorneys -- Ira Reiner and Robert Philibosian, who are both, by the by, currently being paid as expert television commentators on the Simpson trial.


The McMartin trial ended with a dismissal of all charges.

Now, filmmaker Oliver Stone and docudrama king Abby Mann take a no-holds-barred, compelling look at the McMartin case in "Indictment: The McMartin Case," which premieres at 8 tonight on HBO.

Films like "McMartin" are one of the reasons to get cable and HBO. You rarely get this kind of searing, controversial television on the commercial broadcast networks.

How controversial? Before even seeing the film, the Professional Society on the Abuse of Children -- a Chicago-based group of child-care professionals -- sent out press releases saying Stone, the executive producer, and Mann, executive producer and screenwriter, "sensationalize" the case.

Given the nature of the case itself -- and the domino effect of other day-care and preschool centers being closed by copycat allegations -- you have to wonder whether it's sensationalism or having some members of the profession being held up to prime-time scrutiny that worries the organization.

James Woods stars in "McMartin" as Danny Davis, the defense attorney for the family that owned and ran the McMartin preschool. He hasn't been this incendiary since Stone's "Salvador" or maybe HBO's last super-controversial docudrama,

"Citizen Cohn." Woods plays Davis as a complex and fascinating mixture of ambition, intelligence and cynicism. You will not be able to take your eyes off of him.

Abby Mann, who has made a career out of taking on the system since examining German war guilt in "Judgment at Nuremberg," has a ripe system to sink his teeth into with "McMartin." The bad guys include: tabloid headline hustlers, local TV news reporters who will put anything on the air, a Los Angeles district attorney's office poisoned by blind ambition, and a social worker who uses puppets to get children to say what it seems she wants to hear.


The supporting cast is superb. Mercedes Ruehl, as lead DTC prosecutor Lael Rubin, and Lolita Davidovich, as the social worker who came to be known as the "Puppet Lady," almost stop the show. They would if anybody less than Woods were the leading man.

Then there are the soft and cuddly actors that the film cleverly casts in situations that are anything but soft and cuddly: Sada Thompson as matriarch Virginia McMartin, Shirley Knight as her daughter, and Henry Thomas as her son, Ray Buckey.

This is not a film that asks to be liked. There is nothing reassuring or endearing anywhere in the neighborhood of the McMartin case, or the film. It is instead a film that will provoke and challenge you to think. You will wonder why so much of the media, and so many in the audience, were ready to instantly believe the preschoolers' claims of sexual abuse, satanic rituals and the killing of animals.

Did these bizarre allegations speak to some collective fear or guilt in many adults in an America where more and more children were spending more and more time in preschools? And why do we go off on these emotional media jags, anyway, losing all sense of perspective?

"Indictment: The McMartin Trial" will repeat on Tuesday, Saturday and May 31 and June 5 and 8.