'Confirmation': TV Review

Confirmation Still - H 2016
Courtesy of HBO

Confirmation Still - H 2016

Dispassionate instead of sensationalistic — for better or worse.

Kerry Washington and Wendell Pierce are solid in HBO's middlebrow Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas movie.

The timeliness of HBO's Confirmation has been in a constant state of flux since production began last year.

The telefilm about Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court confirmation hearing and the testimony and treatment of Anita Hill was always earmarked for 2016, the 25th anniversary of that political circus.

At one point it looked as if Confirmation might premiere as Vice President Joe Biden was running for the White House, putting a spotlight on the then-Senator's key role in the hearing. Even with Biden out of this year's presidential race, Confirmation posits the influence Hill had in generating a backlash against the Old Boy's Club of Washington, so it has some relevance against the current backdrop of Hillary Clinton's run to become the first female commander-in-chief.

Then, in February, Antonin Scalia died and the constitutionally mandated search for his replacement fell victim to partisan rancor, adding shadings to Confirmation's depiction of a new (Robert Bork's 1987 rejected nomination is mentioned in the opening) tide of political theater infecting the realm of presidential appointments. 

Confirmation also premieres on HBO on April 16, as viewers will still be coming down from the high of FX's addictive The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, which has whet appetites for star-studded recreations of '90s real-world obsessions.

Lost in the layers of potential resonance or hype is the reality that historical telefilms like Confirmation have long been a part of HBO's business model, and that while some are better (Behind the CandelabraTemple Grandin and Grey Gardens were awards juggernauts) and some are worse (you likely don't remember Mary and Martha or Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight ever existed), most fall into an average or slightly-above-average range; they're well-cast projects with limited visual scope, brisk sub-two-hour running times and a desire for earnest centrism rather than sensationalism.

No matter which political groups try to stir up controversy for whichever reasons, just know that Confirmation is part of the latter breed of HBO telefilms, with a down-the-middle script by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) and muted direction by Rick Famuyiwa (Dope), made quite watchable by the performances from Kerry Washington, Wendell Pierce and Greg Kinnear

Some conservatives are already in a tizzy because Confirmation makes Republican senators including John Danforth (played by Bill Irwin) and Alan Simpson (Peter McRobbie) look bad. So perhaps you can expect liberal and feminist groups to express reservations about a depiction of Thomas that feels overcompensatingly sympathetic, a limited "Well it's all still he said/she said" approach to the truth and some strange choices when it comes to depicting the senators in the drama-filled hearings. [Guess what? Your political leanings are going to have some impact on how you watch this movie. Shocking, I know.]

In case you've forgotten, Clarence Thomas (Pierce) was nominated for the Supreme Court by George H.W. Bush (never depicted onscreen) in 1991 after the retirement of Thurgood Marshall. Although his nomination sparked immediate concerns along party lines for his relative lack of experience Thomas was expected to cruise to the high court. Then news broke that Anita Hill (Washington), a University of Oklahoma law professor and former Thomas employee, was accusing Thomas of sexual harassment, a charge our 1991 world legitimately didn't know how to process, prompting hearings in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Biden (Kinnear). Televised live across several days, the hearings had the momentum swings of any great drama and would introduce talk of Long Dong Silver, Coke-borne pubic hair and high-tech lynchings into the collective parlance.

Most familiar to TV audiences as a sexy, ultra-confident, always prepared Beltway fixer, Washington gives a performance of real subtlety and quiet power. The Scandal star sports ill-colored, shoulder-padded suits to match Hill's actual appearance, but beyond that she captures Hill's sense of discomfort, as we barely see her outside of this tempest. Without taking on a strong accent, Washington has pitched her voice higher and taken on a halting cadence that's effectively transformative.

The voice is where Pierce matches Thomas as well. Physically, the Treme veteran looks more like Thomas today than the Thomas of 1991, but the actor and judge share Southern roots and sonorous tones, with Pierce tamping down his natural rumble enough to do a credible impression.

Both Washington and Pierce are at their best when they're playing specific, famous moments from the hearing, with Famuyiwa avoiding overplaying even the most notorious beats by cutting away from the hearing room to show audiences absorbing the broadcast either in Washington offices or in their homes. Washington's take on Hill's unease is always covering a wealth of conflicted emotions. Pierce latches onto Thomas' anger and there's a pause-and-lean-back that Thomas does here in his simmering "high-tech lynching" screed that I didn't remember and that sent me heading to YouTube after watching Pierce's version. My initial reaction was that Pierce had exaggerated it, but he hadn't. Instead, it has context and becomes a character moment.

Per the script, direction and subsequent 25 years, both Hill and Thomas are unwavering in their respective versions of events and with no additional hints of right or wrong, the stars are less successful in the personal moments meant to humanize. It's fault that goes to Grant and Famuyiwa more than the actors. Thomas has an over-abundance of domestic scenes with his family, winning sympathy by playing football with his son and through his wife's unfailing confidence in his story, but his son is a silent prop and the choice was made to have his wife Virginia (Alison Wright) be little more than a supportive, nearly unspeaking spouse — an odd marginalization of an attorney and outspoken conservative activist. That still puts Pierce's Thomas on better footing than Washington's Hill, who gets Erika Christensen as a confidant who might as well not have a name, and a couple of hug-and-done appearances by her aged parents, interactions that offer nothing. It probably would have been safer not to dwell in half-baked form on the main characters' personal lives at all and to spend more time on the actual hearings and deliberations with the senators, the dinosaurs with too much power and not enough perspective.

Kinnear's take on Biden's folksiness probably wanders a bit too close to Jimmy Stewart territory, but that's a reasonable interpretation, especially given how soft the script goes on him. Biden's faulty management of testimony, procedure and decorum have long received much of the blame for the hearings going off the rails, but from Confirmation you'd probably just think he was a well-meaning guy with a toothache, a softie easily manipulated by Senator Danforth (depicted by Irwin as vicious).

Among the other senators, the real standout is McRobbie, unnervingly perfect as the righteous and self-righteous Simpson. The big disappointment is Treat Williams' Ted Kennedy, who could have had a meaningful arc as the vocal progressive muzzled by his past scandals, but instead Williams looks concerned for an hour and then gets one brief monologue marred by the simultaneously courageous and distracting call not to even attempt sounding like Kennedy. Malcolm Gets' Arlen Specter is a minor figure, Dylan Baker's Orrin Hatch has been given the gift of near absence, as are Paul Simon, Strom Thurmond and several other senators who played key roles as the actual history played out.

This is where the shadow of The People v. OJ Simpson and its 10-episode running time looms over Confirmation unfairly. The great pleasure of the FX sensation is that dozens of actors, most highly recognizable, have eventually been given their moments to shine, while in a two-hour HBO movie, people get wasted. Zoe Lister-Jones and Grace Gummer play investigators for Biden and Kennedy and their jobs and their parts are just to be flustered. Wright's Ogletree has one great scene trying to explain to Hill why Thomas' inflammatory testimony was proving persuasive. The wasting of Jennifer Hudson is almost an inside joke, since she's playing Angela Wright, Thomas' second accuser and the hearing's great anti-climax. Eric Stonestreet at least gets the desired distance from his Modern Family day job, but you won't come away from Confirmation knowing what Kenneth Duberstein had to do with anything.

By tip-toeing in the direction of satire, the Danny Strong/Jay Roach telefilms Recount and Game Change got to have a clear perspective and in enjoying the absurdity of unquestionably absurd circumstances, they offered big characters and outrageous scenes. But those have been the exceptions in the HBO family. Confirmation goes for something more dispassionate and even with the fine acting and a great built-in story, delivers something less enlightening and less enjoyable.

Cast: Kerry Washington, Wendell Pierce, Greg Kinnear, Jeffrey Wright, Bill Irwin, Peter McRobbie, Zoe Lister-Jones, Grace Gummer, Jennifer Hudson.
Writer: Susannah Grant
Director: Rick Famuyiwa
Airs: Saturday, April 16, 8 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)