HBO’s Confirmation tackles the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings as simply and straightforwardly as possible
Confirmation is HBO’s TV movie about the early 90s Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings and the firestorm of controversy they ignited. As most people know, the hearings were fully televised and highly consumed thanks to the frank nature of law professor Anita Hill’s sexual harassment accusations against Thomas. It was, in its own way, a precursor to what the O.J. Simpson trial would do to America thanks the channeling of both proceedings into the living rooms of America.
It’s a shame, then, that Confirmation, despite good performances and filmmaking, airs so closely following the transcendent The People v. O.J. Simpson. Where that series smartly revisited events through the prism of modern perspectives, Confirmation plows forward with an ordinary, biopic-level interpretation of the hearings. The opportunity was there to elevate the material, yet director Rick Famuyiwa (Dope) chooses the safe path, disappointingly undercutting the potential impact of the film.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie. Not at all. Confirmation moves along at lightening speed with Anita Hill’s infamous statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee (the one with the Coke can and the pubic hairs) as its centerpiece. This film is the kind of film you expect from HBO, and, frankly, it’s the kind of thing I half expected The People v. O.J. Simpson would be. It’s a parade of famous people playing famous people walking us through famous events much like Jay Roach’s series of HBO films that came before (Game Change, Recount). In fact, the direction felt so familiar that I was surprised to see that Roach had not directed Confirmation. He must have been too busy on HBO’s next big TV movie All the Way, the Bryan Cranston-as-LBJ biopic set during the mid-1960s civil rights fight.
Kerry Washington plays Anita Hill stripped of all the Scandal-bred influences. Washington’s Hill is a noble, thoughtful, and courageous woman. As Susannah Grant’s (Erin Brockovich) screenplay unfolds, Hill is seen more as a noble martyr than a real flesh and blood character. Conversely, Wendell Pierce’s Clarence Thomas is, in my opinion, dramatically short-changed in terms of balancing the events between perspectives. Most of Thomas’s story is told through the senators and handlers dealing with his confirmation. Pierce (The Wire) is good in the role, but there’s not much there for him to work with aside from a few well-intentioned scenes with his wife. Yet, even those scenes seem to tilt toward his wife doubting his veracity. By the end of the film as Thomas is confirmed, his wife happily brings him the news, yet Thomas glares at the camera, all but twisting his invisible Snidely Whiplash mustache.
In terms of supporting players, Confirmation wastes the incredible talents of Jeffrey Wright, Treat Williams, Erika Christensen, Kimberly Elise, and even Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson in seemingly pivotal roles that are nonetheless underwritten. Only Oscar-nominee Greg Kinnear (As Good As It Gets) registers as Senator Joe Biden, then head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who is torn between a natural sense of truth and decency and pressure from his fellow committee members to speed the hearings along. Kinnear actually manages to sound and act like Biden while creating a character of his own. It’s not an impersonation, per se, but is instead the right balance of acting talent and evocation of a very public persona. It’s his performance that surprised me the most in the film, pleasantly reminding me what a very good actor Kinnear can be.
In the end, Confirmation goes down easily enough by simply relaying the hearing’s events like a play by play. It would have been nice for the team to comment on them rather than giving us the standard biopic approach to the material. As the closing montage tells us, the hearings had a significant impact on the political world, ushering in an unprecedented number of female representatives in the next election. The only scene of the actual film that comments on the imbalance of power between men and women in government is one of its best – an ambush of a select group of female representatives on the old-boy Senate dining room. It’s the kind of juiced up moment the film needed.
Scenes like that are the difference between good to great.
In terms of Emmy potential, I suspect Confirmation will see the same level of attention that HBO’s own Game Change received. It’s just good enough to float toward the top of the pack, if it’s not a top contender for any real awards potential.
Kerry Washington, Lead Actress
Wendell Pierce, Supporting Actor
Greg Kinnear, Supporting Actor