Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 25, 2016)
Back when the US Senate actually held hearings to confirm Supreme Court nominees, these debates could become contentious. One famous case occurred in 1991, when the proceedings to replace retired Justice Thurgood Marshall went down complicated paths that we follow in HBO’s 2016 docu-drama Confirmation.
After a quick overview of historical issues, Confirmation picks up soon after President George HW Bush nominates Judge Clarence Thomas (Wendell Pierce) to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by Justice Marshall’s retirement. Rumors abound that Thomas mistreated female employees, and Senator Edward Kennedy’s aide Ricki Seidman (Grace Gummer) gets a lead in this pursuit.
This directs Seidman to the University of Oklahoma, where Anita Hill (Kerry Washington) teaches law. Hill claims that Thomas sexually harassed her when she worked under him as an attorney in the early 1980s. We follow the proceedings as Hill testifies and creates a firestorm of controversy.
Spoiler alert: Thomas’s nomination goes through and he becomes a Supreme Court justice, a position he still holds 25 years later. Many questioned Hill’s account of events – and many still do, as the entire affair ended up in “he said, she said” territory with no clear “truth” ever to emerge.
That leaves a big question about Confirmation: would it take one side or would it try to represent both perspectives in a fairly equal manner? One look at the Blu-ray’s cover – with its focus on Washington as Hill – should provide the answer.
Personally, I suspect Hill did tell the truth, but I still would’ve liked more balance in Confirmation. The movie makes its pro-Hill POV so abundantly clear that it occasionally feels like propaganda.
And propaganda without as much historical perspective as I’d like. I’m old enough that I can recall all these shenanigans from when they happened, so for me, I wanted a Confirmation that gives me information I wouldn’t have seen via TV broadcast of the hearings.
Some of that does come from Confirmation, as we receive occasional glimpses all the backstage antics. Those become the most interesting aspects of the film, as they give us a hint of the political maneuvering that influenced events.
An awful lot of Confirmation simply recreates the actual hearings, though, and without a lot of added perspective. I accept and understand that the film needs to show a fair amount of these events, but I think it relies too heavily on them and doesn’t branch out as often as it should.
Again, the lack of balance also becomes an issue. While I’m fine with a certain filmmakers’ slant, I think Confirmation would work better if it at least attempted some objectivity.
But it doesn’t – and even though I sided with Hill and think she suffered serious injustice, a drama about the topic really needs to flesh out Thomas better than Confirmation does. Poor Pierce gets little to do other than fume and look angry – the movie barely develops Thomas.
Hill receives better exposition, of course, but even those moments seem somewhat one-note. We find her presented as the victimized truth-teller without much depth beyond that. If the movie wants to concentrate heavily on Hill, I think it can then find the room to make her more three-dimensional.
All these complaints aside, Confirmation does offer a professional and entertaining affair. It can be intriguing to revisit the events of 1991 through the prism of 2016, and the movie gets the feel for the era right. It conveys the national mood and the furor about the Thomas hearings in a positive manner.
I just wish it had dug a little deeper. As it stands, Confirmation provides an effortless 110 minutes but not an especially illuminating experience.