Confirmation

| August 5, 2016

The HBO film Confirmation, which premiered on the network last April, benefits greatly from the time of its release. Depicting the 1991 confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, which became a media circus when sexual harassment charges were leveled at Thomas by law professor Anita Hill, Confirmation asks provocative questions about race, gender and political power. While these questions are applicable in any era, they have a particular resonance in today’s social and political climate, which certainly augments Confirmation‘s meaning and importance.

The film itself is at times in danger of coming off as too slight. Relying heavily on the era’s stock footage, particularly “talking head” news segments, which function as a sort of “Greek chorus” for the proceedings, the actual staged drama segments feel occasionally stilted and abridged. At times, this sense is so potent that Confirmation almost feels like one of those dreadful historical reenactment TV specials, albeit with better aesthetics.

It is also augmented by awards-worthy acting, particularly from leads Kerry Washington as Anita Hill and Wendell Pierce as Clarence Thomas. Although the two actors never directly confront each other, their tense conflict engulfs the film’s events, permeating each scene. Through their stellar work, Confirmation builds layers of complexity on top of what could have been perfunctory courtroom drama. When paired with Confirmation‘s eloquent script, these leads strongly parse the meaning of power in America, not to mention the psychology of the marginalized in their struggle for success, stability and dignity. Washington channels Hill’s essence perfectly, emulating the real woman’s actual posture and cadence during the actual televised confirmation hearings. Pierce, for his part, thunders with an beautiful sense of gravitas, particularly in a scene where he waxes on how if he was white Hill’s charges would be treated with far less legitimacy.

Director Rick Famuyiwa (who will soon move on to Warner Brother’s doomed DC Universe with The Flash) also contributes to the film’s charged dynamic, employing cinematography and sound design in critical ways. One example is how he frequently isolates Hill and Thomas in his compositions. This is particularly striking during the hearing sequences, where both Pierce’s Thomas and Washington’s Hill are the lone African Americans testifying before a sea of pasty white senators.

Confirmation‘s verbal, aesthetic and thematic efficacy does not extend to the sprawling supporting cast, who mostly fail to register. As a lawyer who helps Hill, Jeffrey Wright is utterly wasted, and with him being such a gifted, talented actor this feels like a missed opportunity. Why employ such a thespian if you’re going to treat him like a chump and keep him almost exclusively on the sidelines?

Equally ineffectual but certainly less confounding is the way lesser-known actor Grace Gummer’s character is used. Playing a woman named Ricki Seidman, an aid to Senator Kennedy (Treat Williams), Gummer figures into Confirmation for one reason and one reason only: to advance the plot. Marginally better is Greg Kinnear doing a pretty awesome Joe Biden impersonation, but even he doesn’t really have an arc. He’s more there to simply reflect a sense of inner-conflict, oh, and in one inexplicable scene, go to the dentist. Finally, the great Bill Irwin (playing Thomas cheerleader and sycophant Sen. Jack Danforth) is relegated to a one-note caricature, a slimy, slithery serpent of a man who seems to exist solely to mustache-twirl.

With such dramatic inconsistencies in terms of characterization, it is hard to label Confirmation a truly great TV film.  However, it’s certainly a good one, particularly in how its themes are continually reinforced throughout the story, and how they grow as the film reaches its conclusion. Because, while Confirmation postures that its main preoccupations are questions of race and gender, its salient theme is actually the dubious nature of our political system, and how those with power will always seek to keep it. It’s a depressing notion but also hard to disavow, particularly now, which is another example of how the film channels a topical power and meaning. At one point in Confirmation Hill even dishearteningly exclaims about the senators overseeing the hearing, “They don’t care. They only want to win.” Personally, this feels like it could be the national mantra as we dive further into a toxic general election.

Confirmation is now available on BluRay and DVD.

About the Author:

Adam Mohrbacher is a freelance film critic and writer who currently lives in Denver, CO.
Filed in: TV on DVD
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