HBO’s Confirmation will inevitably receive comparisons to FX’s absorbingly addictive The People V OJ Simpson.
Both the mini-series and the latest film from director Rick Famuyiwa (Dope) tackle hard-hitting racial tensions, the ever-watching media eye and behind-the-scenes public figure intimacy to paint an encompassing, vivid portrait on public perception vs. factual evidence. Where the former, of course, focused on the long-winded, heavily-sensationalized legal dispute of the former football player-turned-potential wife murder OJ Simpson, played by Cuba Gooding Jr, Confirmation looks at the uphill struggle endeared by University of Oklahoma professor Anita Hill (Kerry Washington), as she bravely testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee against sexual harassment claims towards her former boss, Judge Clarence Thomas (Wendell Pierce), on the eve of his Supreme Court chair ruling.
And though both take place in 1994-1995 and 1991, respectively, there’s intentionally a relevance and a timeliness to each that makes their stories as poignant, demanding and timely now as they were then. Unfortunately, however, Famuyiwa’s TV movie won’t gather the same publicity and notoriety as the recently-concluded cable series — one that some consider the best of the new year thus far. But that doesn’t mean it should be ignored.
Though Confirmation doesn’t quite have the same thoughtfulness or juiciness (no pun intended) that the freshman anthology series commanded beautifully, it’s nevertheless an emotionally investing, if clearly one-sided, look at prejudice, public scrutiny and the power of perseverance. It doesn’t pack the powerhouse blows that The People V OJ Simpson hits in stride, but there’s a quiet power to it. Like silent thunder, it waits for the right moments to strike. But when it does, it’s positively majestic.
As Confirmation will unquestionably receive comparisons to OJ, so too will people try to find correlations between Washington’s performance as Hill towards her Emmy-nominated work as Olivia Pope in ABC’s splashy White House drama Scandal. For the most part, however, those come rather unearned.
Washington’s work here is much more introspective and subdued, and fittingly so. She commands the role with weighted morality and a deep-seated sensitivity that carries a great deal of contemplation and aching melancholy. It doesn’t quite stand out as her best work, but her portrayal of Professor Hill wields a balance of confidence and humanity. She gets frustrated. She’s easily hurt. And she knows what harm can come to not only herself and her reputation, but to those who come fighting the good fight with her. It’s a touching, deeply-felt performance that, oddly enough, doesn’t really get its full due throughout this two-hour film.
Hill’s struggle gets lost in a sea of supporting characters and media buffoonery as Famuyiwa loses full control on his focus. The director does his damndest to keep all the plates spinning as he bounces between different players and different angles, but he almost immediately gets overwhelmed by his inability to tell every story from every possible side as intently and handedly as he’d like. This is ultimately where OJ succeeds mightily where Confirmation kinda falls apart.
There’s an admirable effort to make this a layered, deeply compelling re-telling, but it’s evident that he and screenwriter Susannah Grant (The 5th Wave) see Hill as the hero and Thomas as the villain — despite trying to suggest otherwise at times. And those limitations in narrative are ultimately what hurt the HBO drama the most because, when it does slow down and focus on Thompson trying to cope with this scrutiny with his ever-supportive wife Virginia (Alison Wright), it’s ultimately these quieter moments that make the deepest impression.
Beside Washington, Pierce has the most thematic weight to bare here, and he owns up to the challenge with stride. He’s both unsure and unflinching, strong-willed but ever-dubious, and Pierce juggles that honorably, commendably and diligently at each turn. Likewise, though Confirmation doesn’t afford her enough opportunities to express her character’s inner turmoil, Wright carries a similarly worried insecurity, but does so without hardly ever saying a word. And rounding out the supporting cast, the typically-underrated Greg Kinnear gives another solid performance slimming his hairline down and playing Senator Joe Biden — a performance I never expected to see from the former Talk Soup host, but one I’m glad I did. Jeffrey Wright, meanwhile, is great as always as Charles Olgetree, Hill’s right-hand legal defense, while Bill Irwin is as slimy as can be without overdoing it as Jack Danforth, the film’s biggest antagonist after a while.
Also, Grace Gummer, Zoe Lister-Jones, Jennifer Hudson and Eric Stonestreet are all good, if limited, in their supporting turns, while Erica Christensen and Dylan Baker are utterly wasted in theirs. It’s a strong ensemble all-around, but never quite an amazing one. Despite all the talented people involved, it doesn’t quite rise to the heights of The People V OJ Simpson‘s crescendo (give or take John Travolta’s baffling turn as Robert Shapiro). It’s never less than respectable, mind you, but nobody quite hits it out of the park either. No doubt will Washington get Emmy consideration for her part, and it won’t necessarily come unearned. But it just doesn’t necessarily wallop with full-force. And that’s not her fault.
Despite also serving as an executive producer here, Confirmation surprisingly doesn’t afford Washington many opportunities to express the full depths and range of her Hill. It’s a little, for a lack of a better term, abbreviated, but a performance that shouldn’t have trouble earning praise. It shines her acting range and prowess in all the right moments, but not as much as some fans will likely hope. It proves she’ll have a long, healthy career when Scandal calls it quits, but was that really called into question?
As a TV production, Confirmation is also limited in a couple other ways. The sets and green-screens often come across as fake, the lightning is just a wee bit too oversaturated, the hair and make-up can be a little too overdone and the cinematography is ultimately a little flat too. But what matters the most is the story and —though it can be a little sloppy in its execution at times — there’s a sterling conviction that makes it stand out just enough to earn some respect.
Washington and Famuyiwa face the challenges at hand with grace and assurance, and there’s a great tenderness and sensitivity to the film that makes it more than just another run-of-the-mill dramatized TV movie. What it lacks in subtlety and depth it makes up for in determination, and there’s enough goodwill here to make this one worth seeking out. But before you do, maybe make sure you watched all of The People V OJ Simpson first.
It's not as powerful as it should be, but Confirmation is still never-less-than-commendable, as strong performances from Kerry Washington, Wendell Pierce, Alison Wright, Jeffrey Wright and Bill Irwin make it worth watching.