Impeachment: American Crime Story review: A gripping retelling of a presidential scandal
A group of government officials camp out in a fancy D.C. hotel suite, huddled around a recording device on the coffee table. They are listening intently to a conversation between Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) and Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson) that's taking place in the restaurant below. As soon as they get what they need — an admission from Lewinsky that President Bill Clinton (Clive Owen) helped get her a job in exchange for her silence about their affair — the men upstairs erupt. "Yeah!" grunts prosecutor Jackie Bennett (Darren Goldstein), pumping his fist and high-fiving FBI Agent Steve Irons (Craig Welzbacher), like dudes whose team just made it to the Super Bowl.
A lot of infuriating things happen in Impeachment: American Crime Story — the third season of Ryan Murphy's true-crime anthology — but none is more emblematic of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal than two grown men high-fiving over a young woman's imminent destruction, because it means their side is going to "win." Though Impeachment is not as emotionally resonant as the previous ACS installments, The People v. OJ Simpson and The Assassination of Gianni Versace, it's a gripping and challenging retelling of a presidential scandal — and our nation's moral failure.
Based on Jeffrey Toobin's 1999 best-seller A Vast Conspiracy, Impeachment (premiering Sept. 7 on FX) unspools multiple narrative threads in its 90-minute premiere. It's July 1993: Deputy White House counsel Vince Foster (Matthew Floyd Miller) says goodbye to Linda Tripp, a secretary in his D.C. office, and drives alone to a national park, where he shoots himself in the head. It's May 1994: Stay-at-home mom Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford) files a sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton, claiming he exposed himself to her in a Little Rock, Ark., hotel room when he was governor. It's spring of 1996: Monica Lewinsky is transferred out of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs to a job at the Pentagon, where she meets and bonds with Tripp, another West Wing exile. And it's January 1998: An unsuspecting Lewinsky arrives for lunch with Tripp at the Pentagon City Mall food court, only to be intercepted by two FBI agents investigating "crimes related to the Paula Jones lawsuit."
It's a daunting amount of information to absorb, made more complicated by the inevitable timeline jumps. One thing is clear, however: Impeachment will not do for Linda Tripp what People v. OJ Simpson did for Marcia Clark (who was also played by Paulson). Barely 10 minutes into the premiere, a mortified Lewinsky turns her glare on Tripp. "Make her stay and watch," she tells the FBI agents who are preparing to grill the former intern. "I want that treacherous bitch to know what she did to me." (This line, and many others in Impeachment, are pulled directly from real-life accounts of the events.)
Of course, Tripp is just one of many bad actors in this saga. Her literary agent, Lucianne Goldberg (esteemed character actress Margo Martindale in a pageboy wig), blithely urged Tripp to record her phone conversations with Lewinsky. Women's Coalition founder Susan Carpenter McMillan (Judith Light) inveigled her way into Paula Jones' circle to boost her own political profile. Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders, nailing the pundit's sneery-snooty delivery) and the so-called "Elves" — a group of conservative lawyers including George Conway (George Salazar) — worked off the clock to bolster Jones' case and force the president into committing perjury. And of course, there's the president himself, whose illicit affair triggered the avalanche of vulgarity that buried the country for most of 1998. Owen, vaguely recognizable under a frosty white wig and a latex approximation of the former president's bulbous nose, keenly evokes Bill Clinton's well-documented magnetism and butter-pecan drawl. He's a ruthless competitor disguised as a great seducer. Impeachment reminds us again and again that none of these people were motivated by concern for Lewinsky or Jones. Clinton's alleged sexual misconduct isn't even the "crime" referred to in the show's title; the law didn't care what he did or didn't do to those women — only that he lied about it.
Impeachment deftly avoids "both sides" equivocations or overtly partisan shading. Nor is it a post-#MeToo hagiography of two notoriously wronged women. The real Monica Lewinsky serves as a producer on Impeachment and consulted on every script, but this is not an exercise in redemption. The most empowering aspect of Impeachment's depiction of Lewinsky may be its determination to show us a twenty-something woman in all her flawed, vulnerable humanity. Feldstein captures the reckless bravado of a young adult both emboldened by and crushed under the weight of an overwhelming infatuation. Her Monica is whiny and self-absorbed, loyal and oversensitive, endlessly devoted and shamelessly exploited.
Though she's burdened with a distracting prosthetic nose, Ashford is stunning as Paula Jones. The Lonoke, Ark., native was once dismissed as a "slut" and "trailer trash" by the media and beyond, but there's not a hint of parody in Ashford's performance. Here, Jones is a trusting people-pleaser, easily manipulated by D.C. power players and her boorish husband (Taran Killam, regrettably outmatched), and too naïve to realize she's being used.
Tripp has long been cast as the scandal's irredeemable Judas Iscariot, and Impeachment is not out to upend that narrative. Over the first half of the season, she's presented as fastidious and condescending, a disgruntled civil servant with delusions of her own importance. "I was the last person to see Vince Foster alive!" she announces with a kind of morbid pride, certain that she was transferred out of the White House because the president believed she knew too much. But no one hires Sarah Paulson to play a one-dimensional villain. Buried under a layered blond wig and an oddly controversial fat suit, the actress reveals the complex frailties and contradictions fueling so many of Tripp's decisions. The world sees her as an opportunistic traitor; Linda Tripp sees herself as a loyal patriot and friend, doing what she must to end Clinton's debasement of his office and his mistress. "All I want, all I have ever wanted, is for Monica to be okay," Tripp says, her eyes flaring with intensity behind oversized glasses. She is desperate to believe it, and Paulson almost makes us believe it, too.
A vast conspiracy requires a vast ensemble — Billy Eichner as Matt Drudge! Mira Sorvino as Monica's mother, Marcia Lewis! Blair Underwood as Vernon Jordan! Elizabeth Reaser as Kathleen Wiley! Rae Dawn Chong as Betty Curie! — and at times, Impeachment begins to feel a little like a prestige Love Boat. I wish I could tell you more about Edie Falco's performance as Hillary Clinton, but she doesn't really show up until episode 7 — and even then only has a few scenes. (FX made seven of Impeachment's 10 episodes available for review.) Were the drive-by appearances of a young Brett Kavanaugh (Alan Starzinski), who worked in the Office of Independent Counsel, or young Jake Tapper (Chris Riggi), who once went on a date with Lewinsky, necessary to the story? Maybe not. But it's also a grim reminder that the origins of today's partisan rancor were, in part, written in the Starr(s).
"They're trying to use the legal system to overturn an election," fumes Clinton. Coulter, meanwhile, sees Clinton's decision to settle the Jones lawsuit as a harbinger of democracy's decline. "Being the president used to mean something," she rages. "After this, just think what kind of flabby con men will see a path to the White House!" Perhaps Impeachment wants to save its most powerful condemnation for the American people, we who remember history and yet continually choose to repeat it. Grade: B+