Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Confirmation Bias

This past weekend, HBO unveiled a new original movie, Confirmation. It examines the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, and the sexual harassment allegations brought against him by Anita Hill. At the time HBO greenlit the movie, there was no way to know the movie would become "extra topical" for two reasons -- the ongoing obstruction to filling the Supreme Court vacancy left by Antonin Scalia's death, and the sudden thirst for "real-life legal dramas" stoked by American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson.

It is in light of the second thing that Confirmation feels rather lightweight. Though I never blogged about it, I watched all of American Crime Story's first season. I won't get sidetracked by a full review of it now, but suffice it to say it was of a much higher quality than I expected going in. The series dug beneath the spectacle and made real people of the trial's major players -- people with understandable motivations that you could sympathize for. In short, American Crime Story presented a very satisfying answer to the question: "how did this all happen the way it did?"

Confirmation falls well short of that. Though you get a rough sketch of the "character" of Anita Hill and her motivations here, everyone else is an empty suit. Clarence Thomas is largely inscrutable, whatever pressures are leading Joe Biden to be such a bumbling pushover are murky, Charles Ogletree's decision to represent Professor Hill feels impulsive, and an interchangeable handful of senators make no impression at all.

The production seems to have relied on casting to generate any personality or emotion at all -- but at least in that, they were fortunate with many of the actors they found. Kerry Washington projects a quiet dignity as Anita Hill, poised under unwanted scrutiny as the wolves tear into her. Wendell Pierce leverages any goodwill you might feel toward him from The Wire or Treme to try to make the narrative seem balanced between his Clarence Thomas and Hill. Greg Kinnear as Biden nails the sense of a cornered (but resigned) animal who would rather be anywhere else. And there are some small thrills in watching Eric Stonestreet shed his Modern Family persona to play a calculating politico, Bill Irwin grandstanding as grandstanding senator John Danforth, and generally watching a parade of working character actors you'll recognize "from somewhere."

But at the end of the day, Confirmation doesn't seem to have much to say beyond, "this is a thing that happened." To be sure, it takes the point of view that Anita Hill was telling the truth, but that just doesn't seem like enough to float this dramatization. At least, it doesn't seem sharpened enough, if "anger-tainment" is the sole aim. I give the film a C+.

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