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Confirmation (2016)

Film: Confirmation (2016)
Stars: Kerry Washington, Wendell Pierce, Greg Kinnear, Jeffrey Wright, Bill Irwin, Eric Stonestreet, Jennifer Hudson, Grace Gummer
Director: Rick Famuyiwa
Oscar History: The film was on HBO, so it wasn't eligible, but I suspect it will grab an Emmy nomination or two
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

Looking around Twitter, a lot of the initial reviews of the film seem to compare it to the recent hit The People vs. OJ Simpson, a show which I didn't watch because I have developed a pretty solid Ryan Murphy allergy despite having seen most of his television work in the past (sadly, because of the bravura praise the series has received I'll probably relent this summer).  Still, it's worth commenting since the courtroom drama is enjoying a massive success not only in television but in documentaries and radio in the past few years coming in the wake of NPR's massively-successful Serial.  The idea of taking on one of the ugliest and bitterest moments in recent American political history, that of the Clarence Thomas hearings, seemed like a no-brainer for HBO, who has had remarkable success in recent years with real-life political films like Recount and Game Change.  Seeing it in reality in many ways plays out something akin to a horror film, regardless of your political beliefs, and it made for arresting, if not always challenging, cinema.

(Real life doesn't need spoilers-if you don't know what happened, you need to pay more attention to history) It has to be said before I delve too deeply into this review that the film's quality in some ways does matter upon whether you believe Justice Thomas' testimony or that of Professor Hill.  While the writers, and in particular Wendell Pierce who plays Thomas, do a decent job of not showing Thomas' beliefs in regard to the matter (we get no secret moments when he's alone or with his wife where he claims the case has some merit or shows signs of guilt), it's impossible to watch this film without a perspective.  After all, as is pointed out point-blank in the film, this was not a political debate with a lot of areas of grey, as the testimonies of both parties were so diametrically-opposed that one of them clearly had to have perjured themselves before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  As a result, I feel it required that I point out (both because it will color my opinion of the film and because this doubles as a political blog) that I have long sided with Anita Hill in this conversation.  The overwhelming evidence against Thomas, the fact that there were so many corroborating witnesses to her complaints, as well as that there were other women who were willing to testify (such as Angela Wright), and the fact that Hill had nothing to gain and quite frankly everything to lose by coming out against Thomas has cemented my belief that her allegations against Thomas were truthful, in which case he didn't deserve a spot on the federal judiciary, much less his current position on the Supreme Court.

This is clearly the belief of the producers of the film, as while the film takes the unusual tactic of never actually confirming or denying Clarence Thomas' guilt (history hasn't even figured that one out definitively yet), they do tacitly imply it by giving Hill's inner perspective and turmoil while never giving us, say, a flashback scene that would have confirmed our suspicions about what happened.  As a result of this, conservatives have pointed that this is just another Hollywood attack, and whether you think the attacks justified or not (I do), they do have a point.  People like Sens. Orrin Hatch, Arlen Specter, and (in particular) Alan Simpson and Jack Danforth come across as bullies and sexists, aggressively attacking Anita Hill to get Thomas through.  It's worth noting, however, that perhaps no politician comes out of this film in worse shape than now-Vice President Joe Biden (Kinnear).  Biden, who would go on to become a champion of women with the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 comes across as a nice guy completely out of his element.  Kinnear's Biden, jovial and clearly someone who relishes his ability to be liked by both sides of the aisle, is lambasted by the writers and by other characters for not having enough spine.  Ted Kennedy, the only senator who gets much of a moment of redemption in the film, frequently makes asides to Biden to stop the Republicans, but Biden doesn't appear to have enough skin in the game.  Many commentators have retroactively stated that Biden could have done more to stop the character assassinations against Anita Hill, and in particular to bring more credence to her argument.  One wonders in hindsight, at least in terms of what the vice president did at the time, how much Biden actually believed Anita Hill, or if it was wholly that he was concerned about people's perceptions of him if he didn't approve Justice Thomas.

It's worth noting, of course, that Sen. Biden voted against Thomas in the end in the closest Supreme Court vote in history, something none of the other Republicans name-checked can claim, but that stain is there, and it's probably a good segway into the actual movie, as Greg Kinnear is definitely one of the movie's highlights.  While the cast is routinely good, very few enter into great, Kinnear being one of three exceptions.  The others are Kerry Washington, who at the center of the film provides beautiful monologue and tries to find the inner-workings of someone who has been extremely guarded (and understandably so) against the press, and Grace Gummer, who stands out as perhaps the only person in the film other than Hill who is clearly, unequivocally pointing out that this conversation has a whole lot more to do with gender than just race as the film frequently frames up the argument.  Gummer, an aide to Sen. Kennedy, convinces him in an excellent moment to forget about the political ramifications and do the right thing, coming to Hill's aid in a way that Biden and none of the other Democratic senators had done.

There's a terrific scene, one that is actually based on history so keep that in mind if Nita Lowey, Louise Slaughter, Barbara Boxer, or Eleanor Holmes Norton still represent you in Congress (you should be proud).  Rep. Pat Schroeder and six other female members of the House of Representatives bust into a Senate lunch (I thought that seemed a bit ridiculous that someone would deny members of the House an audience with the Senate lunchroom, but that's actually based on fact), and admonish Biden and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell for ignoring Professor Hill and women across the country.  It's a great scene, and perhaps the only scene that properly points out that one of the biggest deficits at the time was that there were no women on the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time of this hearing.  In fact, only two women (Nancy Landon Kassebaum and Barbara Mikulski) were even in the entire Senate body.  The film points this out over the ending credit, but it seems like a deeply-missed opportunity to not make this a primary focus, particularly considering that this year will likely mark the first time a major party will nominate a woman to the White House.  One of the single-biggest ramifications of the Thomas/Hill hearings was that women won five Senate seats in one election cycle for the first time in American history that year, a record that would stand until 2012.  The film rarely focuses, however, on this lens (we never once hear it stated by anyone that there was no woman on the judiciary committee, something that would never happen again after the 1992 elections).  It would have been so powerful and perhaps provide a wider lens on this film if we'd seen, say, a cut to Patty Murray or Carol Moseley-Braun saying enough is enough while watching the Anita Hill hearings.

This lack of perspective, and instead simply focusing on the (admittedly, addictive) facts of the case make the film merely good and not great.  There is no larger artistic license here, just presenting something that was a national embarrassment and a low-point in the history of the Supreme Court.  By not taking a stronger political stance until the end credits, the filmmakers lost me as much as they could by a subject that I was fascinated by (I enjoyed playing "guess the senator" in most scenes).  Still, because of the dialogue that it will cause and the issues that it hopefully raises, Confirmation is still worth your time.  Remember that gender equality is not something that is ancient history, and something to never be taken for granted.

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