It’s “Confirmation’s” bad luck to arrive just as “The People v. O.J. Simpson” has ended. The bar was already set pretty high for boutique cable adaptations of media-age history, but post-“O.J.,” that bar is now so high that it will be quite a feat if FX can match it with a different iteration of its “American Crime Story” anthology series next year.
“Confirmation,” premiering Saturday on HBO, is a movie rather than a series (sensibly so), taking us back to the queasy and infuriating few days of October 1991, when Senate confirmation hearings on Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court veered into an investigation of claims from University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill that Thomas had sexually harassed her a decade earlier, when they both worked at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In our mental compartmentalizing of fairly recent landmark events, it is tempting to file the Thomas hearings and the O.J. trial in the same drawer. Not only do both stories rekindle a ’90s je ne sais quoi, they also represent the sort of unfinished business that everyone can only wish was finished. And both are still exhausting to talk about, suggesting as they do that the wheels of justice can easily catch a flat in the face of gender and race concerns.
Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman’s killer is never brought to justice, nor, on a much subtler scale, can we ever know what went on between Thomas and Hill, aside from her determinedly serious account of it and his rush to defend himself as a martyr of concerted discrimination. The moral of these stories is that there is no moral of the story, which leaves us without a true, teachable moment — unless, of course, a movie dramatization might like to step in a couple of decades later and make things a little more clear. (“Confirmation” resolutely refuses this role; so did “The People v. O.J. Simpson” for that matter.)
Instead, such stories serve as nostalgic nuggets of ignominious history, which makes them irresistible to TV producers who have realized that today’s young adults missed all the excitement the first time around. So we ramp up the drama and present O.J. Simpson and Anita Hill to a Twitterized culture that thrives, in part, on fresh outrage.
Yet despite its tantalizing subject matter, “Confirmation” is surprisingly flat and uninspired, in every way that it shouldn’t be in 2016. The cast, headed by Wendell Pierce (as Thomas), Kerry Washington (as Hill) and Greg Kinnear (as then-Sen. Joe Biden), is a top-notch ensemble that is clearly invested in the seriousness and solemnity of the project, even if some of the choices seem a little much, such as Eric Stonestreet as an anxious and foulmouthed Ken Duberstein — an extra slice of ham that causes one to imagine “Modern Family’s” Cam has won some terrible raffle prize where he is forced to play a Bush White House operative in a TV movie.
The screenplay, by Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”), touches on every aspect of the confirmation hearing, finding some of the personal in the political while fearlessly mining the story’s ugliest details. In ways that matter, “Confirmation” is precise and illuminating, particularly for those viewers who didn’t pay attention when all this occurred. (Older viewers might once again wish to review the math: Today’s 35-year-old has little, if any, memory of the hearings; Hill was 35 when she testified.)
The elements are there for “Confirmation” to resonate like similar HBO efforts (2008’s “Recount” and 2012’s “Game Change” come to mind) but much of the film, as directed by Rick Famuyiwa, feels like lavishly and unnecessarily re-created newsreel — especially because it relies too much on actual network news footage that acts as a narrative shortcut.
Instead of concentrating on “Confirmation’s” name-brand performances (Jeffrey Wright as Charles Ogletree; Jennifer Hudson as Angela Wright, the second accuser who never got to testify; Treat Williams as Sen. Ted Kennedy), a viewer winds up marveling at the relatively youthful 1991 conditions of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, Bernard Shaw, Andrea Mitchell, Barbara Walters and others (as well as the reappearances of the late Peter Jennings and Tim Russert), all of them surrounded by outdated screen graphics and washed-out videotape pastels. The newsy nostalgia trip draws attention away from the actors’ efforts, as if someone is unpacking a time capsule in the middle of a stage play.
But the real absence in “Confirmation” is that almost ineffable combination of contextual fact and communal imagination that made “The People v. O.J. Simpson” seem utterly new and addictive — while still adhering almost entirely to reported details.
“Confirmation” works so hard to play things straight down the middle that it forgets to become a movie. Only in rare moments — when Thomas first reacts to news of Hill’s accusations or when Hill tells her ad-hoc legal team that there’s no point in further testimony — does “Confirmation” achieve the sort of transcendence where you stop Google-checking its facts and simply let the story pull you in. (Or pull you under, as the case may be.)
“Confirmation” is filled with scenes of everyday Americans watching the hearings, but it struggles to convey the weirdness of it (the pubic hair on the Coke can, “Long Dong Silver”) with the dawning that society — especially the American workplace — was being pulled toward a new awareness of untoward behaviors. Dutifully, after the Senate confirms Thomas, the movie offers a glimpse at some positive outcomes, especially the election of more women to Congress in the 1992 elections.
“The People v. O.J. Simpson” also played its story down the middle, for the most part; only in the final episode did it reveal anything remotely like an editorial viewpoint, when a freshly acquitted Simpson (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.) realizes with increasing horror that his celebrity status has been hollowed out — a faint indication of a life sentence in the court of public opinion.
Likewise, in its last few minutes, “Confirmation” shows something of a preference for Hill’s account, as the professor returns to her office at OU to find it filled with buckets of supportive mail from all over the country, telling her that she had set a courageous example. (Thomas, of course, goes on to the Supreme Court bench, where he is seldom heard from again.) Only in this scene — Hill softly crying among her heaps of letters — does “Confirmation” seem to grasp the power of omniscience that comes from turning a set of facts and a list of disputes into something effectively more true.
Confirmation (110 minutes) airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO, with encores.