It isn’t a true year for HBO until it releases at least one “based on true events” political docudrama. While mostly known for retelling pinnacle events in 21st century American presidencies, for example the controversial 2000 election (Recount) and the unsuccessful 2008 John McCain presidential campaign, this year, HBO shifted its focus away from the executive branch. Instead it moved on to the U.S. Supreme Court to tell one of the most well-known political controversies of the 1990s: The 1991 Anita Hill vs. Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings.
1991 was a big year for the U.S. Supreme Court when Thurgood Marshall, the first African American elected to a Supreme Court Justice position, announced his retirement due to declining health. Then President George H.W. Bush was put in charge of choosing the new justice and he eventually chose conservative candidate Clarence Thomas. The news of the confirmation hearings for Thomas however caught the attention of Anita Hill, a 35 year-old University of Oklahoma law professor that decided to testify at the hearings on the terms that she was subjected to sexual harassment by Thomas when he was her job supervisor at both the Department of Education and EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). Hill’s testimony eventually led to a very divisive conclusion to Thomas’ confirmation proceedings, but it went on to be a game changer in American politics in a variety of different ways.
In lieu of acclaim achieved by the FX series American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson, Confirmation aims to develop a similar approach to recapture the pre-OJ public outrage of flawed politics and intrusive media coverage. Interestingly enough, HBO announced development of the movie only a few months after FX released the first news of the ACS series. Confirmation deserves credit for brining its prominent true story back to the limelight after 25 years since the hearings, but it goes about telling it in an uninspired style that sharply differs in quality compared to the ample acting by its leads.
Having already gained Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG nominations for her work on Scandal, Kerry Washington is highly deserving of equal acclaim for her subtly compelling portrayal of Anita Hill. She has Hill’s physical look and mannerisms patted down so well and her serene line delivery gives off an astute juxtaposition between her strong will and fear of scrutiny. Similarly to Washington, Wendell Pierce is excellently subdued playing Clarence Thomas. An HBO favorite for his notable supporting roles in The Wire and Treme, Pierce finally gets the chance to flex his acting muscles in a lead role and he completely nails it.
Aside from the phenomenal lead performances by Washington and Pierce, the rest of the Confirmation struggles to rank just as high. Hot off his success of the 2015 indie hit Dope, director Rick Famuyiwa transitions from a neon-infused color palette to one that is mostly gray, and while the aesthetic fits for the searching of a grey area in the hearings, it’s ultimately uninspired for a TV movie production. The cinematography also feels very standard in that there are little to no shots that leave an impact on their framing and or movement.
My biggest gripe with Confirmation lied in the structure of its story. For a film that falls in docudrama subgenre, it’s understandable to mix archived news footage into the live action. However when the usage of archives starts to outweigh the live action footage, the movie suffers a crisis where it feels that the screenwriter didn’t write enough material for certain scenes and thus lost confidence in how to smoothly transition to the next scene. This results in a movie that’s almost 50/50 between being a drama and documentary where most of the news reports essentially restate what just happened before.
In the end, for all the problems Confirmation faces, its forceful leads are what make this a worthwhile one-time viewing. Furthermore those not fully aware of the true story will get a good education of the cultural impact the hearings had on sexual harassment awareness and an increase of female politicians getting elected to Congress. Nonetheless, this pinnacle event deserves a better big screen treatment that’s more fervid in terms of technicality.