Confirmation, an HBO film on the gripping Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings, has so much potential. Quick scene-setting gives way within minutes to the meat of the matter: when Anita Hill (Kerry Washington), then a professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, accused Thomas (Wendell Pierce), who had been her supervisor at the U.S. Department of Education and then again at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, of sexual harassment.
The film, which premieres Saturday at 8 p.m., arrives at a national moment of reflection on, if not pure nostalgia for, the 1990s, airing on the heels of the outstanding The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and a year after Monica Lewinsky reemerged in the public sphere as an anti-bullying advocate. Fluency around the issues at the center of the Thomas hearings — not just general awareness of race and gender but the real nitty-gritty, with the introduction of terms like “victim-blaming” into the lexicon — mean that Confirmation is reaching an audience that is readier than ever to see a dramatic retelling of this story.
But maybe that heightened awareness is working against Confirmation, which fails to explore this riveting, game-changing moment in American history in a new or vital way.
To use The People v. O.J. Simpson as a point of reference (not an entirely fair side-by-side as O.J. is ten hours to Confirmation’s two), that series managed to take whatever preconceived notions viewers had about the O.J. trial, and everyone in it, and reexamine them. Marcia Clark, long a shorthand punchline for incompetence, emerged as a thwarted feminist hero; nuance and empathy was afforded to everyone involved, save, really, for O.J. himself. But Confirmation offers little of that important reevaluation. Instead of adding nuance, it eliminates it. Everyone is either pro-Anita — moral, righteous, disenfranchised in some highly visible way (usually by being the female subordinate of a male politician) — or pro-Clarence: boorish, chauvinist, willfully indifferent to the plight of women the country over.
Many scenes isolate the men and women from each other, as if to double-down on this divide and suggest there is little to no room for people’s opinions on the case to be determined by anything other than gender. Female members of Congress, whose march to the Senate to demand a delay in the Thomas vote is what enabled Hill’s accusations to be heard by the Committee, are shown watching the hearing together, apart from their male colleagues. Male senators gather in their offices, in their cafeteria, in their gym, and, most powerfully, in the front of the room at the hearing. Women meet in hallways and by each others’ desks, all these spaces that are only adjacent to power.
The performances are solid. Washington nails Hill’s cadence, her soft, slightly breathy voice. At the hearing, she deploys the calm, strained delivery of a parent attempting to explain a complicated subject to a kindergartner. Holmes’ displays this anguish from which Thomas never seems to recover, even when his wife (Alison Wright, really cornering the market on “my husband is not who he thought I was” roles) delivers him the “good news” that he has, finally, been confirmed. He telegraphs to his loved ones that the source of his pain are “lies” from Hill and her allies but, to the audience — in moments when he is alone — he shows, silently, that there is something else going on in his mind. As Joe Biden, then Senate Judiciary Committee Chair, Greg Kinnear gets the man’s folksy manner, the well-intentioned paternalism.
Speaking of Vice President Biden, rumors about his camp asking HBO to make changes to the film were not confirmed (…sorry), and he comes off the best of a bad bunch, a “good guy” for the time, for the circumstances, for whatever. (The insistence that he or any of the men involved be regularly reassured of their essential goodness, in spite of their respective action or inaction in this case, calls to mind Brit Bennett’s phenomenal, blistering essay on “good white people.”) He spends a lot of time with his hands literally in his pockets. He appears exhausted with the accusations before the hearings even begin.
In this depiction, it appears most of the men on the Committee are not even sold on sexual harassment as a concept. After Hill describes, in graphic detail, the ways in which Thomas harassed her, Biden immediately asks her to repeat the more salacious details, suggesting either a prurient interest in hearing the play-by-play again or, as Confirmation seems to want viewers to think, because he did not care enough to listen to her closely the first time. Hill exudes competence and class. Her opponents, well, do not. The worst offender is Senator John Danforth (Bill Irwin), who fixates on the idea that Hill has “erotomania” and enjoys vivid, sleazy sexual fantasies, a diagnosis that conveniently smears her with that classic female disqualifier: hysterical. Unsurprisingly, Danworth was displeased with this depiction and released a statement dismissing Confirmation as “full of errors and distortions where I was concerned.”
What occurs during the hearings will be familiar not only to anyone who lived through them but to anyone who has followed any public allegation any woman has ever made against a powerful man. It is no surprise that Hill is pressed by the men of the Committee as to why she took so long to come forward, nor is there anything surprising in her reply: “He said if I ever told anyone of his behavior, it would ruin his career.” There is nothing shocking about those same men asking her, over and over, “Why would you ever speak to him again in your life?” if her allegations are true, simultaneously dismissing the harassment she experienced as not that bad (“So, he never made you watch pornography?”) and so clearly disgusting that she would have to be a lunatic to associate with Thomas in the aftermath of his advances.
At one point, Hill describes one of the strangest and most skin-crawling of Thomas’ actions — in which Thomas picked up a Coke can and asked who put a pubic hair on it — an instantly memorable exchange. But when she refers to “the incident with the Coke can” moments later, Biden asks her to repeat exactly what happened, as if he has no recollection of the testimony that just occurred. That night, Biden is shown in his office, icing a toothache with a cold can of Coca-Cola. Then he takes a swig. The symbolism, we are supposed to gather, is totally lost on him.
So the weakness in Confirmation is not in the source material or in the acting; it’s in the writing. In the screenplay, by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovitch, Pocahontas), the lines that are lifted from life still sting. But the rest of the dialogue is too cute, too obvious. There is no subtext. No thesis statement goes unsaid; every Very Important Message is articulated, sometimes more than once. Lines are so on-the-nose they can feel like they came from an after-school special. Hill hesitates to speak out because “in a case like this, when someone comes forward, the victim tends to become the villain.” She tells her counsel, Charles Ogletree (Jeffrey Wright), when he tries to rile her up as practice for the hearing, “You need to learn the damn truth about sexual harassment.” It’s all so neat, so 2016-looking-down-on-1991 from our superior perch, as if we are really so superior, like we’ve come so far, we’d never victim-blame, we always believe women who accuse powerful men of acts of sexual misconduct, we’re better people now, all of us.
Real news clippings are used early and often; they are so much more useful, in many scenes, than the fictionalized material, you could easily leave the film thinking a documentary would have been a better approach. The most powerful lines are the ones Hill really said, the kicker of her opening statement: “It would have been more comfortable to remain silent. I took no initiative to inform anyone. But when I was asked by a representative of this committee to report my experience, I felt that I had to tell the truth. I could not keep silent.”