Confirmation, HBO’s reenactment of the scorching 1991 Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill Senate hearings, has the misfortune of being the first big docu-movie to air in the new post-People v. O.J. Simpson TV universe. Like Ryan Murphy’s 10-episode FX miniseries which concluded last week, the film satiates the thirst of a large audience hungry for “old news” nostalgia and the desire to be re-angered by public trials, but the film (directed by Dope’s Rick Famuyiwa) suffers from how high the bar has been recently raised — especially for projects delving into the subject of race or gender, as The People v. O.J. Simpson did. Superbly acted but severely unadventurous in scope, Confirmation plays like a milquetoast movie of the week from yesteryear.
Kerry Washington stars as Anita Hill, the 35-year-old law professor who was unwittingly thrust into the spotlight when she provided a statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee about the workplace inappropriateness of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas (The Wire’s excellent Wendell Pierce). The investigation that quickly followed — and Hill’s subsequent testimony and Thomas’s rebuttal — gripped the nation, starting a conversation about sexual harassment that even the Senate committee members (all elderly or middle-aged white men) didn’t want to have. Hill’s claim that Thomas once asked her, “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?” was the lead story on the nightly news. As was Thomas’ accusation that he was the victim of a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.”
Even if you weren’t alive during that eventful week in October 1991 — and there are law school graduates who weren’t, just to make you feel old if you were — the case’s sensationalism and newsworthiness is clear. Yet a quarter or perhaps even a third of Confirmation’s total running time is archive news footage, with Tim Russert, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw, among many others, talking solemnly about the events. But this is just narrative blubber — and worse, a curious sign of the documentary that the movie seems eager to be instead. (Oscar-winner Freida Lee Mock made a very fine one on the subject, called Anita, in 2013 — which includes the twisted detail from 2010 of the 7:30 a.m. phone call Hill received from Ginni Thomas, Clarence’s wife, urging Hill to apologize to her husband.)
Washington’s performance is fortifying, especially during the scenes of the Senate testimony, in which the actress speaks in the authentically halting delivery of Hill’s nervous voice. But Confirmation is strongest when it focuses on the senators themselves, in all their brazenness and hypocrisy, a more topical theme in the light of the current stalemate over President Obama’s latest Supreme Court nominee. But the movie, which has been criticized for its composite characters and invented scenes by both Hill and some of the senators negatively depicted, never obtains a state of moxie about its subject. We’re informed that Sen. Ted Kennedy (Treat Williams) is afraid to criticize Thomas because of his own female troubles, but that line is never explored. Sen. Jack Danforth (the smiling, slithering Bill Irwin) is depicted as a one-note cheerleader for Thomas, alongside caricature Sens. Orrin Hatch and Alan Simpson (played by on-demand villain types Dylan Baker and Peter McRobbie).
But the movie’s most urgent and fascinating character is then-committee chairman Joe Biden (played in an uncanny impersonation, particularly vocally, by the fantastic Greg Kinnear). It’s disappointing that the character of Biden’s assistant (Zoe Lister-Jones) has had her name changed in the movie (from the real-life Harriet Grant to the fictional Carolyn Hart), presumably for reasons having to do with inaccuracy of her portrayal, but Biden emerges as a confident but conflicted man. And Kinnear nails the duality of Biden’s position, attempting on one hand to maintain comity among his colleagues in the Senate while also trying, often fecklessly, to be sensitive to Hill. The current vice president probably won’t love his depiction as a capitulator, but three years after Clarence Thomas was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice by a Senate vote of 52-48, it was Biden who drafted the historic Violence Against Women Act. From its most interesting angle, Confirmation could be viewed as his complex origin story. B-