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The Hunting of the President

Potent screen translation of Gene Lyons and Joe Conason's bestseller, methodically compiles evidence suggesting there was indeed "a vast right-wing conspiracy" waged against the Clinton White House. Scabrous analysis of U.S. media may make "Hunting" a tough item to sell to American broadcast, which is where it belongs.

With: Paul Begala, Sidney Blumenthal, David Brock, John Camp, James Carville, Larry Case, Joe Conason, Andrew Cooper, Jerry Falwell, Howard Kurtz, Gene Lyons, Susan McDougal, Dan Moldea, Claudia Riley, Betsy Wright.

“The Hunting of the President,” a potent screen translation of Gene Lyons and Joe Conason’s bestseller, methodically compiles evidence suggesting there was indeed (as Hillary famously put it) “a vast right-wing conspiracy” waged against the Clinton White House. No matter one’s party affiliation, docu is worth seeing for its eye-opening look at how disreputable characters can impact government — and how easily the mainstream media can be duped into covering scandal-smelling leads. Scabrous analysis of U.S. media, however, may make “Hunting” a tough item to sell to American broadcast, which is where it belongs. Offshore placements may come easier.

Breakneck pic’s borderline tabloid tenor and some cheap humor undercut the gravity of the case made here. Perhaps co-directors/scenarists Nickolas Perry (“Speedway Junky”) and TV series vet Harry Thomason were not the ideal talents to tap for this project. Weight of interviews and revelations generally carry the day, but at times, docu feels like a sweeps week special.

Morgan Freeman narrates a story drawn from some 2,000 hours of mostly archival footage. Docu starts with ’99 impeachment proceedings, as the President is described on the Senate floor as having committed “a terrible moral lapse … a marital infidelity.”

Pic then backtracks to beginning of Clinton’s presidency, when he is perceived by many D.C. insiders as an “interloper,” “outsider” and “white trash” insufficiently connected to the capitol’s entrenched power elite. Rewinding yet further, similar umbrage is noted upon his upset election to the Arkansas governor’s seat — at age 32, the nation’s youngest such official.

Charismatic, idealistic, a Rhodes scholar from a poor background, Clinton seems to have attracted smear campaigners from the start. Ditto fellow Yale Law School graduate-cum-wife Hillary.

Among those lining up against Clinton were: Everett Hamm, whose Alliance for the Rebirth of Independent America was solely dedicated to finding ways to disgrace Clinton; Arkansas State Troopers, who sought talent rep to sell their claims of orchestrating then-Gov. Clinton’s motel liaisons; and private dick Larry Case and former jingle writer Larry Nichols, who admit monetary motives in marketing purported Clinton sex scandals (notably Gennifer Flowers) to the media.

Anti-abortion advocates, right-wing millionaires, disgruntled ex-employees, sore political losers, et al. — many with links to archconservative Rev. Jerry Falwell — also climbed on the bandwagon.

By 1993, an Independent Counsel had been created to investigate the Clintons alleged wrongdoing in the Whitewater real estate/savings and loan deal. Docu suggests when original chief investigator Robert Fiske’s findings looked as though they might clear both Clintons, he was hurriedly replaced with the Republican-tied Kenneth Starr.

Though $50 million in public funds was spent and not a single criminal charge pressed, the damage was done. International and national policy emergencies took a back seat to spin-control. Lawmakers and prestigious media outlets alike demonstrated an incredible willingness to be manipulated by hearsay. (Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz confesses he and fellow journalists lost all perspective in regard to Whitewater, each hoping they might become “the next Woodward and Bernstein.”)

Among most dramatic voices here are David Brock, former star journo for the conservative American Spectator. He now realizes (as laid out in his book “Blinded by the Right”) that he was nose-led by anti-Clinton forces. Another standout is Susan McDougal, the Whitewater co-investor whose refusal to cooperate with Starr led to her imprisonment. (Also sentenced was her ailing husband, who died in jail.)

That the president himself was far from perfect is underlined by a section in which former staffers recall their sense of betrayal once his “stupidly” risky liaisons with intern Monica Lewitzky were revealed.

But, in spite of all the conspiratorial evidence here, “Hunting” never digs deep into one basic question: What was it about the Clintons that brought out so much heavy, slandering artillery? Pic lacks the voice of the devil’s advocate.

Content is engrossing (if so fast-paced that uninformed viewers might easily get lost), but packaging is sometimes questionable. Cheesy ominous synth scoring would work as well on “Fear Factor.” Jokey cartoon sound effects, occasional camp intercutting of old Hollywood movie clips, and snarky inter-title updates on principal figures, all cheapen overall impact for easy laughs. Tech aspects are OK, but feature in general has a very orthodox TV feel.

The Hunting of the President

Production: A Regent Entertainment presentation of a Diceburg LLC production. Produced by Douglas Jackson. Executive producer, Mark S. Weiner. Co-producers, Joe Conason, Amy Greenspun, Keith Sky. Directed, written by Harry Thomason, Nickolas Perry, based on the book "The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton" by Gene Lyons and Joe Conason.

Crew: Camera (color, Sony HD cam), Jim Roberson; editor, Perry; music, Bruce Miller; sound designer (Dolby SR), Eric Garcia. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Special Screenings), Jan. 23, 2004. Running time: 88 MIN. Narrator: Morgan Freeman.

With: With: Paul Begala, Sidney Blumenthal, David Brock, John Camp, James Carville, Larry Case, Joe Conason, Andrew Cooper, Jerry Falwell, Howard Kurtz, Gene Lyons, Susan McDougal, Dan Moldea, Claudia Riley, Betsy Wright.

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