PBS // 2012 // 240 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 3rd, 2012
It all began with hope.
The sprawling, four-hour documentary Clinton offers a portrait of our 42nd President not entirely unlike the thinly-disguised one offered by Mike Nichols' Primary Colors: he seems a fundamentally good, hard-working man who cares about people and is exasperatingly incapable of keeping it in his pants. There's far more to it than that, of course, but every time Clinton enthusiastically underlines some exciting development, moving anecdote or major political victory, there's yet another scandal that effectively hits the "reset" button on the man's momentum. Considering how far he went in spite of the setbacks, one can only imagine how much he might have accomplished without the baggage of Whitewater and a wayward penis.
For the most part, Clinton proceeds in linear fashion. During the early years, his warmth and enthusiasm are infectious. His political ambitions seem motivated not by lust for power, but by a genuine desire to have a positive impact on the lives of ordinary people. There also seems to be an almost pathological need for approval, a Leslie Knope-like desperation to win the vote of every single person in the room. We hear numerous accounts of the manner in which he would take the time to ensure that he shook hands with every person on his campaign stops and made each meeting feel like a genuine personal encounter. I vividly remember meeting Clinton on a school field trip in 1992. My classmates and I were way too young to vote, but he handed each one of us a bag of peanuts, a Coca-Cola and a campaign brochure, shook each of our hands and asked us to tell our parents to vote for Bill Clinton. "I'm gonna be the next president!" he beamed. It was just one of countless stops for him, but he made it feel like a special occasion.
Though Clinton certainly encounters some major setbacks during the early years of his political career (particularly being voted out of the governor's office after one term), he always managed to demonstrate an almost alarming resilience. In 1988, he was given the task of introducing Michael Dukakis at the Democratic National Convention. His speech was long-winded and poorly-received, a large-scale public blunder that might have derailed his ambitions (remember the reception Bobby Jindal's national rebuttal to President Obama received in 2009?), but Clinton swiftly booked an appearance on The Tonight Show, charming Johnny Carson and the public with his self-deprecating humor. Suddenly, he was one of the rising stars of the Democratic party again.
Clinton remains front and center for the first hour or so of the documentary, but becomes marginalized during the portion covering the early years of his Presidency. This is largely due to the fact that Clinton spends a good deal of time outlining the assorted circumstances that led to Clinton's first couple of years in office being nothing short of a chaotic disaster. It's very much a snapshot of a man in way over his head, and Clinton's cheerful face suddenly looks fatigued and defeated. Whitewater allegations keep rising to the surface, the healthcare debate is fumbled, some ill-advised off-the-cuff comments lead to the creation of the useless "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" legislation (a bill which struck an unhappy middle ground which upset conservatives and liberals) and...the list goes on.
Then, a variety of circumstances seem to sharpen Clinton's focus. There's the arrival of advisor Dick Morris, who turned the chaos of the Clinton White House into something much more organized and prepared. There's the arrival of political rival Newt Gingrich, who makes a ruthless power grab and essentially declares himself both the President's official nemesis and equal. Finally, there's the Oklahoma City bombing, which tests the President's abilities as a leader during a time of crisis and effectively demonstrates to the American public that Clinton is capable of being simultaneously sensitive and strong during difficult moments. In other words: he finally seems presidential.
Generally, Clinton is admiring of its subject's intentions and policies (though it gives plenty of interview time to opponents like Trent Lott), but it's ambiguous about the end result of his efforts. In hindsight, most political critics on both sides of the aisle seem to concur that Clinton left the country better off than it was when he took office (though conservatives will contend that this is only because Clinton became more conservative in his second term). In that regard, it can be argued that his eight years were successful. And yet, Clinton often plays like a catalogue of missed opportunities and poor decisions. Some of these were perhaps unavoidable, but a large portion of them were brought on by Clinton's thoughtlessness (whether it was sleeping with an intern and then lying about it, neglecting to intercede in Rwanda or handing control of the healthcare debate to his wife). Here is a man who should have been great, and instead he was merely good.
Though she's often sidelined by the filmmakers, Clinton also offers a rather affecting portrait of Hilary. In fact, by the conclusion, she's the one we feel for the most. Here is a ferociously intelligent woman who is at least her husband's equal as a politician, and yet she is quickly informed that her public image as a strong, influential leader is damaging her husband's polling numbers. So, she's forced to retreat to hosting White House Christmas specials and tackling social causes that no one will really complain about. It's sad to see her continually sacrificing so much out of loyalty to her husband, constantly sticking up for him in the midst of scandal and then repeatedly being forced to realize that her trust was misplaced. The film doesn't go out of its way to comment on the larger implications, but Clinton quietly manages to say a lot about America's still-primitive attitudes towards women in positions of political leadership.
Clinton requires a pretty large investment of time, but A) it's divided into two very manageable two-hour chunks, and B) the time will soar by if you're even a little bit of a political junkie. The filmmakers don't offer new comments from Bill, Hilary or Newt, but a huge collection of high-profile insiders are onhand to offer their personal insights into the assorted chapters of the Clinton years. The pacing is quick, the clips are compelling and Campbell Scott's calm narration is efficient and even-handed.
The DVD transfer is adequate, though obviously a good deal of the source material looks pretty rough. A couple of nighttime shots reveal somewhat poor black levels, but otherwise things look decent. The Dolby 5.1 Surround track is simple and clean. There are no supplements included.
Fortunately, Clinton is neither a hagiography nor a salacious takedown of the former president. Instead, it's an informative, entertaining, fair-minded examination of a compelling public figure that proves about as worthy an assessment of the man as we're likely to receive. Check it out.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 240 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Clinton Library
* Clinton Foundation