HBO's Confirmation Is a Competent, But Unremarkable Docudrama

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Wendell Pierce as Clarence Thomas. Photo: HBO

Confirmation, about the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill scandal, is a good TV docudrama on an important subject. There's nothing bad in it, nothing wrong with it. You watch it thinking, Kerry Washington is pretty good as Anita Hill, or Wendell Pierce looks convincingly like Clarence Thomas from a distance, or The filmmakers are doing a good job of being fair here, and This story still resonates today. But you never think, What a great work of popular art, or this dramatization illuminates the real story in ways that a documentary or a nonfiction book can't, or What a counterintuitive creative choice, and how perfect. 

Over the last 20 years, HBO has all but cornered the market on films like Confirmation — docudramas that are not so much ripped from the headlines as carefully clipped and tastefully framed — so it's not a huge surprise that this would be another entry in that library. It is not substantially better or worse than the 1999 Showtime film on the same subject, Strange Justice. As written by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) and directed by Rick Famuyiwa (Dope), it is considerably less compelling than any of the nonfiction accounts I've seen (the best of which is 2013's Anita). And its proximity to the broadcast of FX's The People vs. O.J. Simpson makes its undistinguished competence more irritating. The O.J. miniseries reinvigorated the recent-history docudrama by structuring its tale as a character-driven anthology, essentially 10 Short Features About the Simpson Case, each one focusing on different characters, adopting a different vantage point and zeroing in on a fresh facet of the case. Confirmation is more he said/she said and Who among us can really say what happened? There's a bit of attention paid to legal maneuvering and how it affected viewers' perceptions of Hill and Thomas' struggles, but not so much that you feel as if you're watching something more than a true story tastefully restaged with actors (Greg Kinnear as Joe Biden, Treat Williams as Ted Kennedy, Dylan Baker as Orrin Hatch, and so on), all cleverly interwoven with clips of CBS's Dan Rather, ABC's Peter Jennings, NBC's Tom Brokaw and Andrea Mitchell, and future Fox News anchor Brit Hume summarizing the latest twists.

Washington captures Hill's coolness under congressional fire, her lawyerly annoyance at the panel's disorganization and opportunism, and her exasperation at being repeatedly asked why she didn't just quit or sue Thomas (as if an ambitious professional woman in a male-dominated profession could have made such choices in the ’80s without destroying her career). Still, after watching the movie you may not feel that you've gained new understanding of Hill's experiences or motivations — or for that matter, those of Thomas. Neither actor is miscast, exactly. But they're also never so thrilling or revelatory that you never wonder what other skilled performers might have done in the same roles (for instance, Jeffrey Wright, cast here as law professor Charles Ogletree, or Kimberly Elise, who portrays discrimination lawyer and former Hill roommate Sonia Jarvis). 

The most provocative aspect of the movie is the way it positions the Hill-Thomas scandal as a milestone in the politicization of Supreme Court confirmation hearings (building on the successful derailing of Ronald Reagan appointee Robert Bork a few years earlier) as well as an evolutionary leap forward in public consciousness of sexual harassment. But here, too, Confirmation fails to do itself any favors, inadvertently arguing against its very existence as a standalone film.