Debuted on PBS in February; now available on DVD, Blu-ray, iTunes, and streaming on PBS.com
I'm a latecomer to PBS, not having discovered some of the fantastic documentary and investigative journalism programming they offer until about six or seven years ago. Since then, I've been playing catch-up and devouring as many older films and programs from their Independent Lens, American Experience, American Masters, and Frontline series as possible, while addictively keeping up with the new content, like Clinton. It's the 15th film in American Experience's ongoing The Presidents series and, like the excellent Woody Allen documentary from last November that I reviewed here, aired on PBS over two nights and clocks in at just under three-and-a-half hours. As has been the case in previous films from The Presidents series, in order to maintain the integrity of the work as a true documentary and not a memoir or biography, Bill Clinton himself was not interviewed by director/writer/producer Barak Goodman, nor was his wife, Hillary.
Goodman spends minimal time on Clinton's Arkansas origins growing up in a broken home, with the highlight of this "early years" portion being the great black and white film footage of the future 42nd American president meeting his hero, John F. Kennedy, at a youth event at the White House in 1963. Following studies at Yale Law School, Georgetown University, and Oxford University, the fiercely ambitious and extremely charismatic Clinton dives into local and state politics, further emboldened by the strong support from his wife, who he met at Yale. Hillary's resilience in the relationship would be tested early and often with Clinton's ongoing marital infidelities. A worker on one of his Arkansas gubernatorial campaigns recalls, "At one time, there was at least 25 women per day coming through (the campaign office) trying to find him". Goodman tastefully handles the future sex scandals involving Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, and Monica Lewinsky, getting surprisingly candid commentary on the topic from former Clinton aides and colleagues, such as Press Secretary Dee Dee Meyers, political advisor James Carville, Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes, and Secretary of Labour Robert Reich. Conspicuous by their absence in the film (not just on this topic, but in general) are former Vice President Al Gore and Communications Director George Stephanopoulos. A welcome impartial perspective is contributed by journalists, historians, and political opponents (Trent Lott, the Republican former Senate Majority Leader, expresses his amazement that Clinton got off as lightly as he did in the court of public opinion). The Lewinsky affair, not surprisingly, receives a significant focus and makes up the bulk of the last hour of the documentary, which also interestingly examines how the role of both the burgeoning Internet and cable TV industry (and, by extension, the 24-hour news cycle) factored into the scandal. The film naturally devotes coverage to other Clinton scandals, including his alleged draft dodging and the Whitewater land investment investigations (its head witch hunter Ken Starr gets a surprising amount of camera time), and while it may seem Clinton spends too much time looking at the negative aspects of his life and career, it's necessary in giving a complete picture of the man's amazing story. Of course, it's Clinton's remarkable ability to rebound from these numerous ugly situations (stemming from some colossal lapses in good judgment) and other political defeats that help make him such a compelling figure, which is a recurring and dominant theme of the film.
Scandals aside, the documentary does a good job in summarizing Clinton's notable accomplishments during his two terms, including presiding over major economic growth, balancing the budget (and leaving office with a budget surplus), coming back from the definitive Newt Gingrich-led Republican victories in the 1994 mid-term elections, and his strong leadership following the Oklahoma City bombing. Coverage of Clinton's political missteps and failures focus on his weakness in the area of foreign policy, notably concerning the lack of U.S. intervention in Rwanda and Bosnia. Hillary's storyline as the exceptionally smart and forgiving First Lady eager to establish her own independence proves to be similarly fascinating. One intriguing segment looks at her popularity issues early on in Clinton's first term, with one interviewee amusingly offering up the following biting assessment: "And the wife was terrifying as well. She was pushy, she was humourless, she couldn't get her hair figured out...there were just so many things about Hillary we didn't like".
Narrated by actor Campbell Scott, Clinton presents a (dare I say it) fair and balanced portrait of one of the most complex and polarizing figures in U.S. political history, coming to the conclusion that the brilliant, but flawed man with an intense desire to be liked ultimately couldn't fulfill his great promise. That may not be a groundbreakingly new viewpoint, but Clinton is still a well-rounded, thoroughly absorbing profile.