Toxic partisan rancor over the Supreme Court – and Republicans’ current refusal to even consider a nominee – provides a beyond-timely backdrop to “Confirmation,” HBO’s sober, dutiful account of Justice Clarence Thomas’ extraordinary hearings amid allegations of sexual harassment. And while the focus will inevitably be on Anita Hill and Thomas, the central players in that drama, this spare retelling offers greater insight into the cluelessness of the white male senators determining his professional fate than of the “He said, she said” divide.
Meticulously produced, cast to the hilt and boasting powerful performances by Kerry Washington and Wendell Pierce in the lead roles, “Confirmation” portrays Hill as a woman dragged reluctantly into the spotlight, only to be subjected to character assassination and second-guessing as Thomas’ Republican supporters seek to salvage his nomination. At the same time, Pierce projects a sense of hurt and betrayal as Thomas – a black conservative put through what he famously called “a high-tech lynching” – who never wavers, publicly or privately as presented here, from his assertion that the allegations against him are fabricated.
It was 1991 when Thurgood Marshall, the court’s first African-American justice, announced his retirement, with George H.W. Bush’s administration hoping to smooth its path by tapping Thomas to replace him.
The choice, however, did little to suppress opposition. The search for background on Thomas unearths years-old episodes involving Hill, who’s minding her own business as a law professor in Oklahoma when she is thrust into the fray. “I’ve got students more qualified than Thomas,” says a law professor (Jeffrey Wright) who winds up helping Hill.
Still, the committee’s Democratic chairman, Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear, uncanny), is hardly enthusiastic about either turning the proceedings into a circus or sweeping Hill’s assertions under the rug. “I do not want to go after this guy on a sex charge,” Biden groans when first informed of the situation. (Much of this byplay is seen from the perspective of staffers working behind the scenes, including a pair portrayed by Grace Gummer and Zoe Lister-Jones.)
Thomas’ backers, who range from Sen. John Danforth (Bill Irwin) to his wife Virginia (“The Americans’” Alison Wright), aren’t initially sure what to believe, especially since Hill, speaking in quiet, measured tones, is such a persuasive witness. But Thomas’ forceful response – indignant, pained and evoking race – not only puts the Democratic senators on their heels but provides the Republicans cover to press ahead with efforts to discredit Hill. Learning the truth, alas, quickly becomes less of an issue than simply securing a “win” at all costs.
Directed by Rick Famuyiwa, from a script by Susannah Grant, “Confirmation” draws heavily from news footage, using “Zelig”-like devices to superimpose Pierce as Thomas behind the actual President Bush. Throw in Washington’s unerring ability to recreate Hill’s deliberate speech pattern – a far cry from the showy persona in her day gig on “Scandal” – and it’s clear the movie seeks to be accurate – almost to a fault. In fact, the prosecutorial approach of Sen. Arlen Specter (Malcolm Gets) in questioning Hill is, if anything, less theatrical here than it was in real life.
Although Thomas was ultimately confirmed, there are no profiles in courage among the politicians depicted, barring a fleeting scene involving Ted Kennedy, played by a miscast Treat Williams. At the same time, the movie not-so-subtly makes the case that perceptions that Hill’s claims were dismissed helped motivate more women to seek and gain elected office following the hearings.
A quarter-century later, there is still ample acrimony surrounding the issues at play here (one need only look to Donald Trump’s candidacy to see some of them), and an even more polarized climate in terms of politicizing the court. By those measures, “Confirmation” needn’t engage in hyperbole or excessive dramatization to feel relevant and shed light on the system, then and now. That adds up to a “Yea” vote for a movie that, frankly, pretty much had it at hello.