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‘Confirmation’ review: Kerry Washington plays a stoic Anita Hill in HBO drama

Kerry Washington as Anita Hill in HBO Film's

Kerry Washington as Anita Hill in HBO Film's "Confirmation." Photo Credit: HBO / Frank Masi

MADE-FOR-HBO MOVIE “Confirmation”

WHEN | WHERE Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO


WHAT IT’S ABOUT In the fall of 1991, Anita F. Hill (Kerry Washington) testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas (Wendell Pierce) had made lewd sexual advances to her 10 years earlier, when she had worked for him. Senators on the committee included Republican Alan Simpson (Peter McRobbie) and Democrats Ted Kennedy (Treat Williams) and chair Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear). In her corner, Hill had the support of Harvard professor Charles Ogletree (Jeffrey Wright). In his, Thomas had Republican Sen. John Danforth (Bill Irwin) and Ken Duberstein (Eric Stonestreet), former chief of staff under President Ronald Reagan.

MY SAY Whether admirer or critic, Republican or Democrat, male or female, everyone could agree on one singular, unassailable attribute of Anita Hill a quarter century ago — her stoicism. Millions of viewers knew that much, too, because they could see it. Hour after hour, neither voice nor testimony wavered. The only concession to dramatic flair — and barely that — was her cerulean blue outfit, which on TV was a welcome splash of color amid the cold, gray sea of suits. She was a fascinating figure, also an unknowable one.

Who was Anita Hill? Who is she? Finding out here is a reasonable expectation, also one of two huge challenges before Washington (an executive producer), director Rick Famuyiwa and writer Susannah Grant. Add too much texture or subtext to that stoicism, and someone else turns up in Hill’s place — perhaps even someone unrecognizable. Actors, of course, do this with public figures all the time, but Hill — who remains a feminist icon — isn’t just any public figure, nor is Supreme Court Associate Justice Thomas. His “high-tech lynching” defense helped secure his confirmation and also resonated with millions of other viewers who agreed with him. Adding too much subtext or texture there is equally perilous.

So sidestepping reassessments — and possibly land mines — “Confirmation” takes the safe way out. Washington’s Hill and Pierce’s Thomas are public figures preserved in amber. They neither surprise nor disappoint, or (for that matter) much illuminate. Of the two, Pierce’s performance may come closest to apostasy — at least for those who believed he should never have been confirmed. His Thomas is visibly aggrieved, even devastated, by Hill’s charges. If not an entirely sympathetic figure, he’s at least a human one.

By contrast, Washington’s Hill is nearly a beatification. Even in a private moment, when looking out of her hotel window across to the Capitol dome, she’s indomitable and impassive.

“Confirmation,” in fact, was blessed with a little pre-telecast controversy back in February when Politico reported that Simpson and a few others were muttering darkly about lawsuits over the film. McRobbie’s impersonation of a fussy, verbose camera hog won’t exactly please Simpson — 84, and long retired — but it’s hardly libel. At least Irwin’s portrait of Danforth as a senator-martinet is amusing.

Nothing else here is. Dutiful, respectful, evenhanded, and full of old network TV news clips that attest to the great drama of the moment, “Confirmation” can also be about as adventurous as a televised hearing on C-SPAN.

BOTTOM LINE “Confirmation” is really “Affirmation.” Little here challenges — or deepens — the record.

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