If the absorbing American Experience documentary “Clinton” were a book, people would rush directly to the index and look up “Monica Lewinsky” and “sex scandal,” which does, indeed, encompass a considerable portion of this two-part production. In its wider context, though, Bill Clinton’s private peccadilloes occupy no more or less space than warranted given the pivotal role they played in diluting his presidency. Ultimately, writer-director-producer Barak Goodman has captured the essence of the man: A political natural whose uncontrolled appetites were, ultimately, as defining as his gifts.
Having spent so much time with the Clintons over the past two decades, one might assume four hours is overkill. After all, with so much in the public record, events so recent and the former first couple not participating, what can the filmmakers possibly tell us we don’t already know?
Still, Goodman (“My Lai”) methodically goes about chronicling Clinton’s political career — there’s a modest section about his early biography — peppered with fascinating tidbits and footage, like hokey TV ads from when he ran for Congress in Arkansas. The doc also makes clear Clinton’s womanizing started early, while noting how his political skills caused him to believe he could “win over just about anybody.”
“Clinton” also does a nifty job of capturing the relationship between Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, with their shared love of politics trumping his infidelities. A harbinger of what’s to come emerges in 1987, when Clinton’s chief of staff, Betsey Wright, talks him out of a presidential run then because of fears his extramarital affairs would be exposed on a national stage.
Clinton’s disastrous nominating speech at the ’88 convention follows, along with his charming rebound appearance on “The Tonight Show” — one of many times he merited his “Comeback Kid” label.
As a testament to how dense “Clinton” is, some highly intriguing aspects are dealt with sparingly. Journalist Joe Klein, for example, mentions how the expansion of 24-hour cable news channels in the mid-1990s — with its insatiable appetite for scandal — became a “vicious fact” of the Clinton presidency.
Part two picks up after the Democrats’ crushing defeat in the 1994 midterm elections, when Clinton turned to consultant Dick Morris for assistance in dealing with the Newt Gingrich-led Congress. The main thrust, however, explores the Lewinsky affair, which plays like a thriller, with cloak-and-dagger stuff.
Perhaps the most significant observation belongs to Clinton cabinet secretary Robert Reich, who wonders why his boss “put himself and his presidency in jeopardy in such a careless way.”
Clinton supporters will likely wince at all the attention devoted to this liaison, but Goodman’s point — echoed by multiple talking heads — is a good one: While enemies might have been deranged in their hostility toward Clinton, he handed them the equivalent of a spiked baseball bat with which to assault him.
“Clinton” has to end somewhere, and it doesn’t extend beyond the presidential years, thereby not including the remarkable way its subject reinvented himself, yet again, to become a powerful, much-admired elder statesman on the world stage.
Maybe they’re saving that for the inevitable sequel. Because when it comes to the traveling circus that is the Clintons, chants of “Four more” — whether it’s years or, in this case, hours — just seem to roll off the tongue.