'Confirmation': Drama Plays Out Behind the Scenes on HBO’s Politically Charged Movie

Confirmation Still - H 2016
Courtesy of HBO

Confirmation Still - H 2016

Some of the real-life players in the Anita Hill saga claim that the cable network is anti-Republican in the way the film portrays events.

In 1991, Anita Hill riveted the nation with televised accusations of unseemly behavior at the hands of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. She alleged her former boss engaged her in unwanted discussions about pubic hair on Coke cans and porn movies starring “Long Dong Silver.” Thomas, nominated by Republican President George H.W. Bush, was confirmed largely along party lines.

HBO now hopes to attract a similarly raptured audience with its retelling of that historical moment in a movie called Confirmation, produced by Michael London and Susannah Grant, which airs on April 16. The film stars Kerry Washington as Hill and Wendell Pierce as Thomas. But behind the scenes, a drama is playing out that might be as politically partisan as the hearings were themselves. Some involved in the hearings are complaining that HBO has manufactured a hit job against Republicans, while the network maintains it is telling an important, non-partisan story about an event that forever changed the definition of sexual harassment.

Mark Paoletta, a lawyer in the Bush White House who worked to ensure Thomas’ confirmation 25 years ago, says HBO’s motivation has nothing to do with historical accuracy and is instead meant to sway political opinion eight months before Americans vote for a new president. He cites HBO movies like Game Change, which he says disparaged former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, as evidence of bias at Time Warner’s premium network.

“HBO made this movie in an election year to support Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, which loves to claim that a mythical ‘war on women’ is underway by Republicans,” says Paoletta, who hasn’t seen Confirmation but read a script last revised in late July.

Paoletta’s claim is flatly denied by HBO. “I don’t even understand that comment,” says Len Amato, president of HBO Films. “A ‘Republican war on women?’ I don’t think that phrase has ever come out of my mouth.”

Insiders also claim that operatives for Joe Biden successfully lobbied HBO to make changes that would reflect better on the vice president, who, at the time, was the senator presiding over the Thomas hearings. Amato acknowledges changes were made after various people read the script, but not to placate political sensibilities.

“We measure their input against the research we’ve done, and against our sourcing, and if we think someone makes a point that’s valid, we make an adjustment,” he says.

The back and forth between HBO and Republicans started with an Aug. 13 “memorandum” from retired Missouri Sen. John Danforth written to Grant, Washington, London and others, in which he complained about specific scenes in the script he said never happened in real life. The Yale Law School graduate ended his four-page memo with: “Insofar as the script you sent me pertains to me, it is untrue, and it is malicious. If shown on television, it would greatly damage my reputation.”

Some of what Danforth complained of isn’t in the final version of the movie, while other things remain. For example, Danforth interviewed psychiatrist Park Dietz for insight about Hill, though in the movie his name was changed to “the evil sounding Dr. Satinover,” and he’s portrayed rather foolishly, he wrote. “He was a renowned psychiatrist who had interviewed John Hinckley. He came to my office voluntarily because he thought he was performing a public service,” Danforth wrote.

Perhaps the most common complaint registered by Republicans, though, is the portrayal of Angela Wright, the so-called “other woman” who had been fired by Thomas and was set to testify that she, too, had been sexually harassed by him years earlier. In the HBO film, it’s mainly Republicans (with a little help from Biden) who prevent Wright from testifying.

“You portray Angela Wright as a corroborating witness who is bullied against testifying by ‘unethical’ tactics of Republican senators. This is not true,” Danforth wrote in his memo.

Alan Simpson, a retired senator from Wyoming who also played a pivotal role in ensuring Thomas’s confirmation, is much more forceful.

“HBO says Angela Wright is the great second coming who we wouldn’t allow to testify, but she was plenty flawed. Clarence fired her because she called a co-worker a ‘f—-t.’ She wanted revenge. I thought, ‘Bring her on. I’d love to cross-examine her,' ” Simpson tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It was Democrats on Anita Hill’s side who didn’t want her. That’s the irony. Republicans were waiting with bated breath, and her people knew it.”

Simpson says of the script in general: “Anita Hill looks good, Clarence Thomas looks bad, and the rest of us look like bumbling idiots.”

For his part, Amato doesn’t acknowledge a traditional protagonist or antagonist in Confirmation.

“I don’t look at this movie as heroes and villains, I look at this as a human story of people doing the best they can under unusual circumstances and under the glare of the media spotlight,” he says. “It’s a difficult story because, at the end of the hearing, people didn’t believe Anita Hill. They didn’t believe her by a ratio of 2-1. That doesn’t feel particularly heroic.”

Simpson told Grant, the screenwriter, a few things he thought were unfair about the script as it pertained to him, but then wrote a blistering letter to the filmmakers — copying attorney James F. Bennett — complaining of the script’s treatment of Danforth.

“You really picked on and piled shit on the wrong guy. Jack Danforth is one of the most prominent figures in American political life,” Simpson wrote. “If the intent of your HBO film was not to defame, embarrass, belittle and ridicule him, you sure as hell did a beautiful job anyway.”

HBO notes that many complaints laid out in the letters from the senators are based on a script and not the finished product, though HBO showed the movie to both men recently, and Danforth emailed the following statement to THR: “Confirmation is based on historical events, but it is really a piece of entertainment that to a distressing extent distorts those events. Even its producers do not claim it is a documentary. It is a movie. The film contains scenes that never happened and conversations that never occurred. Some scenes that did happen are portrayed with significant inaccuracies." 

Paoletta also wrote multiple letters to HBO and the filmmakers, threatening legal action if certain scenes weren’t eliminated or changed. HBO turned Paoletta and other real-life people in the script into composite characters. Daniel Sauli, the actor who was once listed as playing Paoletta, now plays a fictional character named Chris Levanthal.

“I have since learned that other participants in the 1991 confirmation hearings have received similar treatment when raising concerns about the accuracy of the film,” Paoletta wrote in one letter to HBO executives and Confirmation filmmakers. “For example, Harriet Grant, who was then-Chairman Joe Biden’s chief nominations clerk, raised significant concerns to the producers about her portrayal in the film, and as a result, her character’s name was also changed to that of a fictional person. Why would you do that if this film accurately portrayed the hearings?”

HBO senior vp legal affairs Patricia Duncan responded to Paoletta with: “Your letter is filled with numerous charges against a film you have not seen; your conclusions are based on a script that you have already been advised is outdated. Given these facts, it would not seem productive to engage in a debate with you about the film.” 

At the end of Confirmation, HBO has added a disclaimer reading: “This film is a fact-based dramatization. Some of the events and characters have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes.”