'Hunting' Hits Its Target
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 25, 2004; Page WE33
EVERY STORY needs a villain, and the story spun in "The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill Clinton" is no exception. In Harry Thomason and Nickolas Perry's fascinating documentary on what Hillary Rodham Clinton once called the "vast right-wing conspiracy" to discredit her husband, the bad guy is one Ken Starr, the former chief independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation. Here's a man whose every appearance on camera ought, by rights, to be accompanied by booing, hissing and the throwing of rancid tomatoes -- at least if the filmmakers have their way.
Make no mistake. This is partisan filmmaking at its most gleefully unapologetic. Unless they're also masochists, Bill Clinton haters and Ken Starr fans will know better than to buy a ticket.
Co-writer-director Thomason, as most everyone in Washington knows by now, is a longtime F.O.B. (or Friend of Bill). Hence, it is early on in the film, as we are introduced to Larry Case, a sleazy, venal Little Rock private eye and apparently one of Clinton's most dimwitted enemies, that the film cuts away to an old black-and-white clip of a shirtless hillbilly dancing on the porch of a ramshackle hut. Cue the derisive laughter.
Despite, or more likely because of, such pointed jabs as this -- not to mention the inclusion of ominous, "Jaws"-like music and slo-mo every other time Starr rears his head -- Thomason and Perry's film makes an extremely effective case that the path leading up to Clinton's impeachment hearing was, in fact, blazed by a well-organized coterie of experts in the field of ad hominem attacks, character assassination and mudslinging.
Think of it as a companion piece to "Fahrenheit 9/11" (see review on this page). Like Michael Moore's incendiary anti-Dubya documentary, the equally left-leaning "Hunting" makes its points not only with the administration of judicious humor but with the application of pungent facts.
Backtracking from the opening salvo by former senator Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), who is seen asking, incredulously, "How did we come to be here?" at Clinton's impeachment hearings, the film plows through a heap of important but now largely dimly remembered recent history.
Names of such prominent figures as Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers and Jerry Falwell commingle with those of such behind-the-scenes players as conservative billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, chief Whitewater accuser David Hale and conservative pundit Ann Coulter, one of the clandestine group of Jones's legal advisers known collectively as "The Elves." Further down the food chain, we meet or breeze by such minor players as: Everett Ham, member of the Clinton-bashing Alliance for the Rebirth of an Independent America; Parker Dozhier, an operative in the Mellon Scaife-funded "Arkansas Project," whose one goal was to discredit Clinton; and Sheffield Nelson, a onetime political rival of Clinton's whose Republican National Committee connections aided in bringing the so-called Troopergate scandal, involving accusations of Clintonian sexual liaisons arranged by Arkansas state troopers, to light.
In other words, bring a score card. The film, based on the book by investigative reporters Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, is byzantine with intrigue and dirty-dealing. In the end, however, it makes a frighteningly coherent argument that, to put it quite simply, Clinton was railroaded.
Perhaps the most eloquent spokeswoman for this point of view is Susan McDougal, the ex-wife of a soured former Clinton business partner who served two years in prison rather than, as she describes it, making up dirt about Clinton to hand over to Starr and his minions. Her role in the drama -- and it's an effective one -- is the damsel in distress.
Surprisingly, though, there is no real hero in "Hunting," which wisely avoids blind hagiography. Ample criticism of Clinton's judgment and behavior, for instance, comes from folks like Paul Begala, a Clinton White House political strategist, and Betsey Wright, the former Arkansas governor's chief of staff.
As with "Fahrenheit 9/11," it isn't entirely clear if "Hunting" will actually change any minds or if it's merely preaching to the choir. Some may call it just another example of liberal media bias, but in the end it comes off not as an outrageously slanted screed, but as a well-researched source of righteous outrage.
THE HUNTING OF THE PRESIDENT: THE TEN-YEAR CAMPAIGN TO DESTROY BILL CLINTON (Unrated, 89 minutes) -- Contains snippets of testimony about sexual relations, a four-letter word, a glimpse of a woman in a wet T-shirt and old news footage of an execution. At Visions Bar Noir.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Former independent counsel Ken Starr is clearly one of the bad guys in the gleefully partisan "Hunting of the President."
(1998 Photo Doug Mills -- AP)