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September 11, 2004

The Hunting of the President

Harry Thomason and Nickolas Perry's The Hunting of the President (IMDB), a documentary about "the ten-year campaign to destroy Bill Clinton," has been lost in the shuffle of the many other fine documentaries that have appeared in theaters this year. In fact, compared to the packed houses in Atlanta for F9/11 and Control Room, I was a little disappointed to see such a small crowd present last night for Thomason and Parry's film. I was even more disappointed because Hunting is an engrossing, entertaining film, equal parts conspiracy thriller and political documentary (and, yes, like J. Hoberman, I'm aware that Clinton's story is yesterday's news).

Very quickly, The Hunting of the President introduces us to shady Arkansas locals, including a private detective and other local characters looking either to shut down Clinton's rise to power or at least make a profit from it. These characters are introduced rapidly, using titles that appear to be typed onto the screen (echoing the effect used in All the President's Men). At the same time, the film uses archival footage from kitschy 1950s detective films to humorous mock the artificial seriousness with which the investigations of Clinton were conducted. This use of footage reminded me more of The Corporation than of Michael Moore's use of similar footage, but the effect of the inserted footage is to tweak the tone of Hunting and prevent it from feeling too heavy-handed.

We watch as reporters discuss overhearing conversations on houseboats involving shadowy figures from the Arkansas Project, while Bill Clinton's ascent to the Presidency begins to appear inevitable, although we rarely glimpse Clinton himself, an aspect of the film that I found lacking (I'm no Clinton apologist, but conveying his charisma, especially during the 1992 campaign would have made the film more interesting, I believe). Further, because Thomason is a famous FOB (Friend of Bill), it seems to gloss Clinton's complicated sexual history.

The film builds chronologically (the official website has a nice timeline and list of key figures), with local Arkansas "scandals," including the Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers stories, giving way to Ken Starr's unabashedly partisan $80 million investigation of Whitewater. These stories move primarily through talking heads inteviews, with David Brock emerging as a credible figure in discussing the smear tactics used by conservative Clinton haters. He also illustrates how the "liberal media" were complicit in bringing down Clinton, with everyone seeking to be the next Woodward and Bernstein in a new Watergate, a process that seems to be playing itself out yet again in the ridiculous Memogate controversy, in which we now see dozens of bloggers suddenly proclaiming themselves document experts. Meanwhile, reporters who questioned the validity of Starr's investigation were immediately tarred as Clinton apologists

Susan McDougall and Claudia Riley emerge as key figures for talking about the Independent Counsel's Whitewater investigation (McDougall eventually was sentenced to two years in prison, basically for refusing to testify against the Clintons). McDougall's tales of being forced to wear the "red dress" in prison, typically a signifier of especially violent crimes such as chld killing, is rather upsetting and, of course, recalls another famous dress. Riley, a longtime Democrat and classic southern matriarch, provides plenty of color, echoing the film's assertions about the Starr crowd's fascination with Bill Clinton's sex life. Asked if she ever had sex with Clinton, the 74-year old replies, "He never asked me."

Some viewers of the film will fault it for not giving voice to "the other side," and Thomason and Perry show only a couple of interviews with people who fought for Clinton's impeachment (although the closing credits list several of the people who refused to be interviewed), but like David Edelstein, I don't think this is a major fault in the film. It still makes the clear case that American taxpayers spent $80 million on an investigation that "turned up nothing but evidence of consensual oral sex." And, to be honest, the film does downplay the Monica Lewinsky affair (I don't think Linda Tripp was mentioned at all in the film), but their absence from the film doesn't diminish its main point.

As Edelstein points out, Hunting effectively conveys the ability of the right in "transforming baseless innuendo into the stuff of $80-million taxpayer-funded investigations—and impeachments." But, unlike Bush's Brain, which seemed focused only on identifying Karl Rove as a masterful manipulator, Hunting doesn't pretend to identify an organized conspiarcy. Intsead, several figures, from Ken Starr to Jerry Falwell to billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, emerge as working against the President for a variety of reasons. The film's ability to avoid the image of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" is one of its greatest strengths. Intsead, it focuses on this loose alliance of figures who fought to weaken one of the most popular presidents in recent memory.

Posted by chuck at September 11, 2004 10:56 AM

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