First the miniseries about the O.J. Simpson trial and now an HBO movie about the Clarence Thomas hearings.
What will the 1990s yield next?
Perhaps a new look at the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding dustup, starring Anne Hathaway as Kerrigan and Hayden Panettiere as Harding? Or maybe we’ll revisit Bill Clinton’s tryst with Monica Lewinsky, with Sean Bean as the president and Alexandra Daddario as the intern?
You’d be hard-pressed to top the magnificent casting in HBO’s “Confirmation,” a mostly straightforward but occasionally near-campy look back at the circus-like hearings in 1991 to confirm Clarence Thomas for the United States Supreme Court.
Kerry Washington as Anita Hill!
Wendell Pierce as Clarence Thomas!
Greg Kinnear as Joe Biden!
Treat Williams as Ted Kennedy!
Dylan Baker as Orrin Hatch!
Jennifer Hudson as Angela Wright!
Some of those character names might not ring a bell for millennials, but if you’re old enough to remember the daytime soap opera that was the Thomas hearings, odds are you’ll be tickled by the superbly spot-on casting, the pinpoint accurate hair, makeup and wardrobe — and most of all, the charismatic performances from the ensemble cast.
To set the scene: After Justice Thurgood Marshall announced his retirement, President George H.W. Bush nominated the conservative, relatively inexperienced Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court.
During the vetting process, it was learned that a former colleague named Anita Hill had accused Thomas of sexual harassment in the early 1980s. By 1991, Hill was a law professor at the University of Oklahoma and was unknown outside of legal circles — but when Hill was called to testify in the Thomas hearings and described a number of alleged incidents of harassment, she was thrust into the spotlight and found herself at the epicenter of the madness.
To this day, the name of a certain porn star and a gross joke about a type of hair on a soft drink immediately elicit memories of the Thomas hearings.
Pierce does a wonderful job of capturing the enigma that was — and still is — Clarence Thomas. One moment, he comes across as a decent, ethical, respected family man; other times, we believe he just might be odd enough and inappropriate enough to have said and done the things Hill said he did.
Washington is equally strong in her portrayal of Hill, who didn’t ask to become famous but didn’t back down from her accusations under the blinding glare of the spotlight. “Confirmation” doesn’t take sides, but it leaves us asking the same question we asked during the actual controversy: Why in the world would Anita Hill fabricate these stories? Take a look at the news footage of Hill from 1991, and you’ll see just how well Washington has re-created Hill’s unique speech cadence.
At first the notion of Greg Kinnear as Joe Biden, who led the Democratic effort to block Thomas’ appointment, seems like something out of a “Funny or Die” short, but Kinnear never once turns the performance into caricature. He somehow manages to look and sound like Biden, who dearly wanted to keep Thomas off the bench, but didn’t want a sex scandal to be the reason for the derailment.
Perhaps the most impressive supporting performance comes from the veteran character actor Peter McRobbie as Sen. Alan Simpson, a staunch defender of Thomas who went after Hill with a nasty vengeance. (“I’ve got letters hanging out of my pocket, saying WATCH OUT FOR THIS WOMAN!”) It’s chillingly accurate.
Director Rick Famuyiwa seamlessly blends news footage into the fictional adaptation. Save for a few scenes that feel like overkill just to give us a little bit more intrigue and suspense, “Confirmation” feels true to the spirit of the events, which were bizarre, unsettling — and undeniably entertaining.
HBO Films presents a film directed by Rick Famuyiwa and written by Susannah Grant. Running time: 110 minutes. No MPAA rating. Airs at 7 and 10:50 p.m. Saturday and repeating on future days on HBO.