(June 17, 1994 premieres on ESPN on Wednesday, June 16, 2010, and airs several more times in the following days and weeks. Visit the film’s page at the 30 For 30 website for screening details and to watch a trailer.)
What were you doing on Friday, June 17, 1994? What’s that, you say? That date doesn’t ring a bell? Okay, let me put it to you this way. What were you doing the day Al “A.C.” Cowlings took his buddy Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson on a nationally televised police chase in a white Bronco down the 405, just days after Simpon’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman had been brutally murdered, leaving Simpson the primary suspect?
I know where I was. Sitting on my parents’ couch in Mt. Airy, Maryland, glued to the television, watching the drama unfold with a mixture of shock, awe, and disgust. As the chase steadily morphed into a surreal highway parade in which pedestrians waved signs, cheered, cried, and generally acted like short-circuiting groupies at a rock concert, I remember thinking, with a palpable measure of sadness, that this was our The Day of The Locust. It was one of those rare moments when you could feel a chunk of the world’s innocence being lost.
In revisiting that fateful day—which, it turns out, was memorable for many other sporting events in addition to the aforementioned, roundabout sports-related one—director Brett Morgan has taken a major stylistic risk. This time, it pays off. June 17, 1994 is one of the most creative and exciting entries in ESPN’s 30 For 30 series. Rather than pondering the past from the comfort of the present, Morgan instead presents archival footage from different networks unfolding over the course of that day, edited together as if we, ourselves, were sitting on a couch back in 1994, flipping through the channels. There are no talking heads. There is no narration. There is only the rising tension of the unfolding drama mixed with whatever personal baggage we bring to the table.
As for those other sports-related reasons, if you are a sports fan, they are indeed quite notable: that morning, just days after winning their first Stanley Cup in over 50 years, a parade was held for the New York Rangers in downtown Manhattan; in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, golf legend Arnold Palmer missed the cut at the US Open, thereby playing his final round ever on the PGA tour; back in Manhattan later that night, the New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets—tied at two in a best-of-seven series—faced off against each other in the NBA Finals.
As assembled by Morgan and editor Andy Grieve, June 17, 1994 is a grand channel surfing opera. At times, cutting from, say, the heightening tension of the OJ chase to the first half of the Knicks/Rockets game provides a bit of a dramatic letdown. But as the hour-long film builds to its rousing climax, all of these elements merge into one grand spectacle—the Rangers’ parade, Palmer walking up to the green on the 18th hole to a tearful standing ovation, the excitement in Madison Square Garden, the gathering crowds on the 405 as Simpson is desperately talked out of killing himself in that Bronco… watching this footage back-to-back, side-to-side, at the exact same time, we are confronted with the true soul of modern America. It’s a fascinating, thrilling, terrifying spectacle, all the more so because it is always, without question, televised to death.
What ultimately impacted me the most about Morgan’s film is that it provides a bracing reminder of how Simpson’s disappearance that morning and the subsequent chase, in which he huddled in the Bronco’s backseat and spoke on the phone to law enforcement officials while holding a loaded gun to his head, made it 100% clear that OJ Simpson had murdered these two people. And everyone knew it. Even his attorney Robert Shapiro’s late-inning request that we not pass judgment and instead wait for the court trial when all the facts would be presented rang insensitive and lame. There was no question about it. Simpson was guilty.
Only he wasn’t. During that subsequent trial, which was itself televised to death in an even more disgusting example of the media running amok, we lost another, perhaps larger, chunk of innocence. Or maybe it was never there to begin with. I can’t remember anymore. My brainwaves are too clogged with television static.
— Michael Tully