HBO has had a run of bum luck lately, between the soft opening for Vinyl, the uncertain future of True Detective, and the steady trickle of news about the sputtering productions in its pipeline. But the gods finally smiled on the kingdom of not-TV: While every other network scrambles to discover the next American Crime Story, HBO is ready to pounce with Confirmation, an ideal companion piece that deconstructs another infamous historical hullabaloo. Like the O.J. Simpson saga before it, Confirmation deals with a legal conundrum comprising so many different facets of identity politics that no one is truly capable of considering it through a rational, objective lens, including the people whose job it is to do so.
Kerry Washington stars as Anita Hill, the law professor who was jostled into the spotlight during the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (Wendell Pierce). Hill insisted that Thomas had repeatedly subjected her to sexual overtures and lewd comments when she worked for him at the Department Of Education, then later at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Hill is the definition of the reluctant hero, a refugee from the D.C. political world who spent enough time there to know the consequences of radical honesty, especially when a powerful man’s conduct is the subject at hand. Confirmation emphasizes how little Hill wanted to be involved in corroborating the whispers of sexual impropriety that surrounded Thomas as he prepared to assume the SCOTUS seat vacated by Justice Thurgood Marshall. Hill isn’t opportunistic; she’s just scrupulous. Someone asked what happened to her, so she told them, right down to the pubic hair on the can of Coke and the graphic descriptions of bestiality porn.
Confirmation follows the template established by HBO Films’ previous political post-mortems, including Recount and Game Change. The film isn’t especially interested in examining the truth of Hill’s claims—though it unequivocally lands on her side—as much as the way politicians craft narratives to suit their own ends with little regard for the collateral damage. Then-senator Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear) chaired the Judiciary Committee during the Thomas confirmation hearing, and he comes across as a weak-willed pragmatist, greasing the wheels behind the scenes so the Democrats can appear to have vetted Thomas without actually doing so. Meanwhile, Republican presidential aide Ken Duberstein (Eric Stonestreet) is determined to get Thomas confirmed by any means necessary and has no qualms about assassinating Hill’s character. As in all HBO’s ripped-from-the-headlines political films, Democrats are a naive, jelly-spined bunch begging to be clobbered by the more organized, more devious Republicans.
Screenwriter Susannah Grant, who earned an Academy Award nomination for scripting Erin Brockovich, is the perfect person to adapt another true story about an accidental feminist icon. Grant’s script follows both sides of the conflict, not just the machinery around Hill and Thomas, but the people themselves. While Hill’s story is instantly credible, without the faintest whiff of malice, Grant is careful to show how Thomas’ frustration and anger was genuine, if misguided. Thomas truly believes that he didn’t do anything wrong, or at the very least, that such predatory behavior was common in the political sphere and if not for his race, no one would be attacking him for it. But even at his angriest, Thomas avoids lashing out at Hill directly, even as he launches a full-bore attack on her credibility. In Pierce’s hands, Thomas isn’t furious as much as disappointed and confused. The real tragedy of the Hill and Thomas fiasco is that it seems like an issue that, in a more enlightened time, could be settled with an apology, a note in a personnel file, and a half-day of professional training.
But Confirmation’s value lies in how meticulously it recreates an era in which a simpler solution wouldn’t have been possible. While Thomas’ case is a pre-O.J. example of a formal hearing being overtaken by the spectre of racism—Thomas’ infamous “high-tech lynching” comment is milked for all its worth—Confirmation is less a story about racism than it is about sexism. The public was baffled by Hill, a black woman playing an instrumental role in potentially derailing the appointment of a black man to a lifetime appointment on the highest court in the land. Later, by the time Hill had been portrayed as an obsessive liar and Thomas won the appointment in a squeaker, everyone realized how insignificant the race component was. She didn’t impugn his good name because he’s black; she did it because he’s gross.
As rich as the story is, Confirmation feels too long, especially since it doesn’t diverge significantly from the public’s perception of what happened. It’s fascinating and maddening to glimpse a period when people thought sexual harassment had to involve physical contact and that women had some kind of incentive to lie about their boss’ unwelcome advances. But at ground level, Confirmation isn’t full of shocking, counterintuitive details that challenge the conventional wisdom around what happened. Director Rick Famuyiwa floods his shots with blinding natural light, an ongoing metaphor for the illumination of dark, cloistered spaces, but Confirmation isn’t particularly illuminating except for viewers with no recollection of the events.
Confirmation is still a worthwhile film packed with impressive performances. Washington is perfectly cast as Hill, though there’s considerable irony in watching her go up against the White House that employed Judy Smith (Kristen Ariza), the inspiration for Washington’s star-making role on Scandal, as its crisis manager. Jeffrey Wright is phenomenal as Charles Ogletree, Hill’s counsel, and The Americans’ Alison Wright is equally strong as Thomas’ unwavering wife Virginia. With a cast so formidable, it’s almost a shame Confirmation isn’t a story that could have been expanded to series length. But it’s a story worth telling, one about the kind of quiet heroism that doesn’t always translate well to the screen.