A few years before frenzied media coverage of the Menendez Brothers and O.J. Simpson murder trials, it was arguably the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings that gave America its first contemporary taste of how the 24-hour news cycle would come to bear on stories of national interest. But where the murder cases were mostly tabloid sensation, Anita Hill’s allegations stoked an uncomfortable but direct conversation about gender dynamics and power in the workplace, and sexual harassment, which at the time was still emerging as a serious subject. HBO‘s drama “Confirmation” tries to balance the broader social context and intimate details of the case equally, but only manages to do so with intermittent success, in a picture that sometimes feels not to be handling the subject matter with the same degree of severity as its characters.
The wheels are set in motion fairly quickly as Ricki Seidman (Grace Gummer), an aide to Senator Edward Kennedy (Treat Williams), gets in touch with with college law professor Anita Hill (Kerry Washington) regarding rumors circulating that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas (Wendell Pierce) didn’t have the rosiest of relationships with women during his tenure at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Hill has reservations at first about speaking of her experiences under Thomas, saying prophetically, “In my experience, in a case like this, when someone speaks up — the victim tends to become the villain.” But soon, Hill issues a printed statement to Seidman, emphasizing she wants it to remain confidential. Naturally, that doesn’t happen, and as the contents of her statement spread across Washington, it soon becomes clear that if nothing but for propriety’s sake, a formal investigation about the allegations will have to take place.
Indeed, the Republicans are upset their nominee is going to be publicly scrutinized, while Democratic Senator Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear), thoroughly overwhelmed at handling an issue of such seriousness as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, tries to play peacekeeper, keeping his rivals across the aisle happy, while at least putting up the show of giving the charges against Thomas a thorough look. And so Hill bravely strides into Washington hardly knowing she’s already been positioned to lose, while Thomas will be humiliated, but ultimately given the highly sought after Supreme Court slot. “Confirmation” never manages the level of outrage it should on Hill’s behalf. It offers Thomas a curious level of sympathy for his ordeal, rather than more harshly analyzing his odious behavior.
The script by Susannah Grant (“Erin Brokovich,” “The Soloist”) and direction by Rick Famuyiwa (“Dope,” “Our Family Wedding”) often feels like it’s playing devil’s advocate about Hill’s allegations, particularly in the early frames. And while this sense of balance might be more welcome in a documentary, in a dramatization, it feels like a misstep, almost positioning the protagonist as unreliable. The sequences of Thomas quietly raging at the injustice he feels at the process and the turmoil of being put through an embarrassingly public string of inquiry, almost seem to question whether or not Hill’s allegations bear enough importance to potentially derail a man’s career. There’s not enough depth to the script for these scenes not to come off somewhat problematic, and when coupled with an overall tone problem, the effect is jarring.
While there have already been some complaints about how the politicians in this film are depicted, both sides come off looking like idiots. Almost every single politician is portrayed as a one-dimensional, bumbling fool, either ill-equipped or unwilling to seriously consider the ramifications of Hill’s testimony. Biden features both qualities in galling measure, inept in his role as chairman during the hearings, wavering between being obtuse, and giving the Republicans far too much rope in their challenges against Hill.
The film’s narrative and thematic issues aside, it is blessed with the kind of strong performances you’d expect from this kind of cast. The highlight is certainly Washington, playing Hill with a simple, defiant, pragmatic courage. And it’s her scenes with Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree (Jeffrey Wright) that are the film’s best. He’s initially a confounding blend of opportunistic (he joins Hill’s legal team knowing full well it’ll help his career prospects) and intelligent, but at his core, he believes Hill, and doesn’t feel Thomas is suited for the Supreme Court. Together, they make a potent package, and hold the center of the film’s moral compass. Gummer is also notable as Ricki, who watches in horror as the political machinery rallies to ensure Hill is only partially heard, and the gears of D.C. aren’t interrupted, all while watching with disappointment her as own boss, Edward Kennedy, remains silent. (He was coming off a couple of years of intense tabloid coverage regarding his personal life.) Meanwhile, the direction by Famuyiwa is perfunctory — not a surprise given the story’s courtroom drama procedural framework — capably mixing archival footage, with filmed elements.
“Confirmation” never rouses, angers or even provokes and that’s precisely the problem. It almost views the hearings as an interesting object from the political past, rather than truly make resonant how Hill’s story, the debate over her allegations, and the national discussion it sparked, has never been more timely. Hill’s struggle and Thomas’ lack of accountability are simply duplicated again here, when the former deserves better, and a true finish to her day in court. [C]
“Confirmation” airs on HBO on Saturday, April 16th at 8 PM.