HBO has been making glossy films based on relatively recent, juicy political incidents for some years now. Recount, its drama about the drama of Bush v. Gore, aired in 2008. Game Change, its drama about the farce of Sarah Palin’s vice presidential bid, aired in 2012. Confirmation, about 1991’s Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas hearings, premieres Saturday night, but it arrives in a whole new context: the true crime craze.
The success of Serial, The Jinx, Making a Murderer, and, most especially, FX’s fabulous hit show American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, has kicked off a true-crime buying spree. NBC just commissioned Law and Order: True Crime, an anthology series that will begin with a dramatic retelling of the Menendez Brothers murders. CBS is commissioning a similar series that will start with the JonBenét Ramsey case. Confirmation, unlike these shows, is not about a criminal case. When Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, it took place in the court of public opinion and in a hearing on Capitol Hill, not in a courtroom. But like these other series, Confirmation involves two sides and a mystery: Did he do it? And like People v. O.J. Simpson, though Confirmation does not come right out and state its position, it is nonetheless clear: You bet he did.
Confirmation is not a particularly good production, but it is gripping. This is one of the virtues of the format: It is incredibly sticky. We all like to play detective. And with dramas based on well-known incidents, strong feelings are all but baked in. If comedy is tragedy plus time, scandal plus time seems to be a pretty reliable formula for watchable TV. I admit I had to pause Confirmation every few minutes as it neared its preordained end, to keep from getting too rage-y: Knowing how something will go doesn’t make it any easier to take.
The problem with Confirmation—one that People v. O.J. Simpson turned into a virtue, by focusing on the characters surrounding O.J.—is that the figures at the very center of the story are ciphers. Kerry Washington stars as Anita Hill, who at the time of Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court was a law professor at the University of Oklahoma. She is a paragon of decency, strength and thoughtfulness throughout. If she is anything more human than a saint in real life, this movie won’t tell. Wendell Pierce plays Clarence Thomas, and unlike Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Simpson there’s no grimacing to make the performance an implicit confession of guilt. Pierce’s Thomas is a tightly controlled man who it is impossible to imagine being relaxed enough to smile, let alone put a pubic hair on a can of Coke.
All the messy, awful human behavior is left to the politicians and staffers surrounding Hill and Thomas, who tilt the movie (after tilting history) decisively in Hill’s favor by inexcusably railroading her. This will be familiar to anyone with any memory of the hearing, but Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee mistreat Hill, skeptical of her charges and embroiled in sketchy sexual circumstances of their own. Long before Confirmation had even been filmed—when it was just a script—various people involved with the case complained about its factuality. Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, for example, took issue with a scene in which he insulted Sen. Arlen Specter that did not make it into the final product. Simpson did not complain about the parts of the film in which he says, “Instead of sexual harassment, [Hill will] see real harassment, Washington-style,” and “Nobody’s got the guts to say [‘Watch out for this woman’] because it gets all tangled up in this sexual harassment crap,” because he really said those things, one on the floor of the Senate and the other mid-hearing.
Republican senators and staffers, trying to get President George H.W. Bush’s nominee through the court, slander Hill in any and every way they can—accusing her of erotomania, borrowing accusations from The Exorcist, and generally condescending to the idea that sexual harassment could possibly be a real thing. Democratic senators, especially Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear), cave again and again to Republican pressure by rushing the hearings and burying corroborating reports, because they prefer to preserve the dignity of the Senate and a civil bipartisan relationship than to give Hill’s accusations the airing they deserve. (The irony of this, in the middle of the ongoing Republican lockdown of the nomination process, is so apparent, it is for the best the movie makes nothing of it: The lily is already over-gilded.)
Confirmation shares a surprising amount with The People v. O.J. Simpson: They take on similar angles and highlight similar strands of different scandals. In both, charges of racism and sexism are played against each other, and sexism loses. When Thomas speaks before the all-white committee, he describes what is happening to him as “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in anyway deign to think for themselves, do for themselves, have different ideas. … This is what will happen to you, you will be lynched by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree,” and it stops cold the anxious, white, Democratic senators from questioning him harshly. Their Republican counterparts feel no such compunction with Hill.
And both shows valorize a woman put through the wringer in the early ’90s. Prosecutor Marcia Clark’s good name has only been returned to her very recently, thanks to The People v. O.J. Simpson’s sympathetic and revisionist account of her performance during the trial. Hill never quite lost her good name, and her shoddy treatment by the Senate turned sexual harassment into a big issue in the 1992 campaign and beyond. She was not in need of a reputation-affirming love letter, but Confirmation is that anyway: She is its unqualified heroine. The movie even spins a bittersweet ending out of the hearings. Hill returns to Oklahoma—and piles and piles of mail thanking her for her bravery. Because of her sacrifice, onscreen text informs us, more women than ever were elected to public office in 1992, official sexual harassment complaints doubled, and an important workplace discrimination law was passed. Still, all this doesn’t balance out with the very last shot of the movie: documentary footage of Justice Thomas in his robes.