Whatever is worthwhile about The Hunting of the President -- a new documentary on the right-wing attack dogs that conspired to bring down Bill Clinton throughout his presidency -- the film is plagued by a single, damning problem: It was made by Harry Thomason. Thomason is an über-F.O.B., a very public Friend of Bill (and Hillary) from the Arkansas days. This allegiance swiftly and entirely removes him from the realm of objectivity.
True, Clinton was the subject of an $80 million probe to uncover even the tiniest shred of miscreant behavior in his past, and one can't blame his friends for wanting to expose his accusers as the vicious, manipulative and unethical bastards they seem to have been. But even though the film doesn't attempt to be impartial, and even though it's based on a best-selling book by journalists Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, with Thomason at the helm, The Hunting of the President can't ever rise beyond love-letter status. Interviewees Susan McDougal, James Carville, Paul Begala and others are rich with tales that condemn the anti-Clinton junta, but they're all Clinton associates. David Brock -- the former right-wing apparatchik who used his column in The American Spectator to foment rumors about Clinton's sex life -- holds Clinton's foes in contempt, but he turned tail several years ago, delivering a grand mea culpa with his book Blinded by the Right. Other than a 10-second statement from Jerry Falwell, The Hunting lacks a single interview with anyone not allied with Clinton.
As if the film's credibility weren't already in question, The Hunting of the President further undermines itself with tabloid-style narration, overly emphatic graphics, and a sensationalistic tone. Directors Thomason and Nickolas Perry seem blind to their effect; they use some of the same offensive (in both senses) tactics of which they accuse their villains. Worse, who decided to include random, unrelated footage? The interviews, captivating unto themselves, are spliced with scenes from (one assumes) old films and newsreels that have merely a tangential relationship to the topic. For example, a discussion of a flurry of phone calls might be spliced with black-and-white footage of an operator at a switchboard. This is distracting and, frankly, juvenile. Then there's the segment that juxtaposes a series of questions from a reporter and an answer from Clinton that appear to have occurred at different times and in different places; let us hope that Perry, who also wrote and edited, didn't stoop that low. Finally, there's the fact that the name "Monica" doesn't arise until the final five minutes of the film; when it does, the scandal and ensuing impeachment are glossed over as though the nation scarcely noticed them.
On this last point: It's true that the film is not about the Lewinsky scandal but rather the forces that worked for years to bring Clinton down on any charge -- sexual indiscretions being the most convenient and, ultimately, the only ones factually available. (And that, we all seem to agree, was nobody's fault but Clinton's.) The Hunting wants to make the point that the impeachment was a crock, contingent not upon a breach of the president's duties to the country but upon a lie about his personal life. That's a fair argument, but why omit the fact that the House of Representatives actually did impeach Clinton? How can we trust the rest of the film if it isn't honest on this point?
And yet, there is content here. If you're willing to look past The Hunting's plangent tone and self-righteous glee, there's actual material, some surprising and even enraging news. We may have laughed when Hillary Clinton attributed the initial Monica accusations as a "vast right-wing conspiracy," but, well, she seems to have been correct. Throughout his two terms in office, Clinton was the focus of a shockingly mean-spirited campaign to take him down -- a campaign that began with Arkansas locals pissed off at the liberal-leaning governor's power and later found its most potent ally, and executor, in Kenneth Starr. Most viewers will know that "independent" counsel Starr was anything but; he was publicly acknowledged to be a "Republican political and legal operative" whose investigation of Clinton, which began with Whitewater, morphed into Paula Jones and, finally, Monica only because Starr was viciously determined to unearth something unseemly in Clinton's past in order to remove the president from power. What viewers might not know is that Starr was merely continuing, and expanding, an effort that had long been in place. The Hunting of the President is largely concerned with exposing that effort.
Finally, it may come as a surprise that Starr's tactics ran from the aggressive and bullying to the unethical and illegal. Starr never succeeded in removing Clinton from office, but he did manage to take down a host of others, including the sweet and honest Susan McDougal. A Clinton friend from the Arkansas days, McDougal and her husband invested in the Whitewater property along with the Clintons. When Starr pressured her to sign a statement damning Clinton, she refused, as the statement was false. Starr sent her to jail for contempt, where she served two harrowing years on murderer's row. It's like something out of Kafka: Do we live in a society where truth tellers are jailed so that lying despots can spew propaganda in peace? We just might.
The Hunting of the President
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.