DVD Review– The Night Of
The Night Of is an HBO miniseries based upon the British series Criminal Justice. While the basic plot and many pertinent storyline details remain the same, the Americanized version comes into its own as a commentary on the U.S. justice system. The Night Of succeeds in Americanizing the source material while adding some brilliant touches of its own, though certain other aspects of the show are not nearly as poignant as the production team might have wished.
The story starts with college student Naz Khan (Riz Ahmed) borrowing his father’s taxi without permission as he goes out for the evening. Along the way, he meets a lively and attractive young woman who soon draws him into a night of petty theft, twisted games, drugs, and sex. It’s all a lot of fun until Naz wakes up in the middle of the night and finds his date stabbed to death.
A pivotal plot point is that Naz doesn’t know whether he’s innocent or guilty—he has no memory of harming her, but he realizes he might possibly have killed her in a drug-induced fugue. The contingency that some unknown party committed the crime while he was unconscious is also possible. Not wanting to take the time to figure out his level of culpability, a panicked Naz grabs the weapon and runs but is caught and soon arrested for the murder.
Almost immediately, The Night Of becomes as much about what it takes to survive at Rikers Island and withstand the massive psychological pressures of a protracted court battle as it is about the mystery. Many other reviewers have described the mental and physical transformation Naz undergoes as his way of adapting to survive in prison, and there’s a lot of truth to that, but throughout the miniseries, I saw an additional interpretation of Naz’s changing. Naz’s inability to cling to his own innocence or to admit to his guilt places him in a limbo state—he embraces prison because, having a conscience, he believes that he might be guilty, and if so, he deserves punishment. Simultaneously, he still hangs on to the hope that he did not commit this crime, which is why he continues to fight in court.
The rest of the cast is excellent. I was satisfied to see Michael Kenneth Williams and Bill Camp receive Emmy nods for their roles as the powerful convict Freddy Knight and the dogged homicide investigator Dennis Box. Williams plays a man who accepts responsibility for his crimes and even manages a level of pride in them, though he maintains the ability to appreciate innocence when he thinks he sees it. Camp’s detective is first painted as an antagonist but is steadily revealed as an honest, principled man who puts the truth above convenience and politics. Jeannie Berlin, as the prosecutor who’d probably be a really nice person if you didn’t have to go up against her in court, also should have seen some awards love.
Payman Maadi and Poorna Jagannathan are terrific as Naz’s parents. They bring a level of pathos and quiet dignity to every scene, and they really should have been given more screen time.
The most masterful performance is by John Turturro as the low-budget defense attorney John Stone. Ahmed won the Emmy, but Turturro is just as deserving of acclaim. Turturro plays a gifted lawyer who has found himself with far less happiness and much less respect that he wants and deserves, but he has long ago given up hope of a better life. Afflicted by a debilitating skin condition that makes him a figure of mockery, Stone has adopted the persona of a sad sack in his personal life, but when given the chance to take on the case of a lifetime, Stone puts on a defense that would make Perry Mason proud.
Turturro’s performance is notable for its restraint. A lesser actor would have played up Stone’s quirks and eccentricities and created a broad caricature—a deliberately comic figure. Turturro wisely downplays anything that would make Stone a joke. In his hands, Stone is no loser; losers give up, and Stone keeps going, despite the miniscule chance of glory. Turturro has created a masterpiece of a performance by staying true to the character at every moment and never even dreaming of overacting. Robert De Niro and the late James Gandolfini were both attached to the role at times; either actor would have brought a very different but potentially brilliant approach to Stone, and to think about what could have been is intriguing.
There are some aspects of the miniseries that never reach the heights of the rest of the show. The Khan family’s Muslim background is stressed, and anti-Islamic acts are mentioned in passing, but the latter plot point isn’t given genuine attention, nor is any meaningful attempt made to explain the mentalities of the vandals and bigots, unlike nearly every other character in the production, who is developed into a three-dimensional human being, with their flaws and shortcomings presented, explained, and critiqued with intelligence. One of the masterstrokes of Criminal Justice was that a throwaway line of dialogue in an early scene turned out to be a vital clue to determining what had happened. In The Night Of, the line remains in mildly altered form, but the changes to the crime’s solution reduce it to a mere red herring. Furthermore, the solution to the crime can be discerned through one of the more obvious tropes of second-rate television crime show plotting.
What is more, there are at least two pieces of physical evidence that ought to have been game-changers but which were completely overlooked at the trial. The astute viewer should be able to figure out the guilt or innocence of one major suspect by an intelligent critique of the crime scene investigation.
The Night Of ought to be viewed in tandem with the original first season of Criminal Justice. Both provide a searing look at the people participating in a criminal trial, and the atmosphere lingers with the viewer long after the miniseries ends.
The Night Of