Covering an admirable amount of ground in a short amount of time, all roads in “Confirmation,” HBO’s new dramatization of the confirmation hearings for then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, lead to one indelible image:
A lone black woman, still and straight, facing a double-row gallery of powerful white men, none of whom want to hear what she has to say.
This is Anita Hill, played with masterful and illuminating restraint by Kerry Washington, as she sits before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Even before she speaks, quietly describing the ways in which Thomas (Wendell Pierce) allegedly sexually harassed her during the time she worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the sight is, as it was 25 years ago, a stunning revelation.
As is the film itself.
So though it follows the confirmation of a male Supreme Court justice by a predominantly male Senate, “Confirmation” is a story of women. First and foremost Hill, but also those behind the scenes and in the press who persuaded her to speak out so that Committee Chairman Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear) would take her seriously.
After establishing the politics of the nomination — President George H.W. Bush had to replace Thurgood Marshall just four years after Senate Democrats had rejected Reagan nominee Robert Bork (and then confirmed Anthony Kennedy) — “Confirmation” introduces its main players: Thomas, standing with the quietly pleased president while miles away at the University of Oklahoma, and Hill, who was not pleased but determined to remain quiet.
However, a member of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s staff (Grace Gummer) has been investigating rumors about Thomas. When she calls to ask about Hill’s experience working for the nominee, Hill decides to answer, in full.
Because if Hill has no political agenda, pretty much everyone else involves does, and “Confirmation” is admirably ruthless in its presentation of all of them.
Thomas remains steadfast in his denials and, until the moment when he famously lashes out at what he calls a “high tech lynching,” spends much of the film in signature silence, which Pierce deftly uses to suggest a panoply of emotions, from shock and rage to touching bewilderment, without ever quite committing to one reaction or another.
His team, on the other hand, is quickly focused. Republican Sens. John Danforth (Bill Irwin), Arlen Specter (Malcolm Gets) and Alan Simpson (Peter McRobbie) are first dismissive, then argumentative and finally resort to outright smear tactics.
Only when forced into action by a small group of female members of Congress does Biden allow time for Hill’s written testimony to be submitted, and only when NPR’s Nina Totenberg somehow gets a copy of that statement does the committee agree to hear Hill’s testimony.
The rest is painful history, powerfully told.
Though it fits nicely into HBO’s collection of political dramas, including “Recount” (the 2000 presidential election) and “Game Change” (Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential campaign), “Confirmation” has a closer emotional and thematic kinship with FX’s recently completed “The People v. O.J Simpson.”
Partisan acrimony continues to rule Congress, threatening to obstruct the next Supreme Court appointment; women still struggle to have their issues taken seriously, and though the House and Senate may be more diverse than they were in 1991, the current Congress is still 80% male and 80% white.
Which may be exactly why we all need to see what happened in 1991 all over again.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)