Thursday, July 22, 2004

The Hunting of the President

I had the good fortune to attend last night's Seattle premiere of The Hunting of the President, Harry Thomason's documentary based on the book by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons. The latter is clearly becoming the definitive text on what happened to the Clinton presidency -- and the film, one hopes, is the first serious step in the public's reassessment of that period.

As it happened, I was invited by Gene Lyons, who flew up from Arkansas for the show and talked with the audience afterward. I also had the chance to chat briefly with Gene outside the theater and thank him for the tickets. He is, as I gathered from our e-mail conversations, both a very genial and a very wise fellow. Next time, perhaps, we can talk about the fishing in Montana.

Susan McDougal was also there, signing copies of her book. As we went in, my wife (who hasn't yet read THOTP) asked: "Why would I be interested in her book?" By the time we left, she knew.

McDougal, in fact, becomes the emotional centerpiece of the film in a way she never was in the book. I wasn't sure how well this would work, but seeing the film, it works very well indeed.

As you'd expect, the film takes a great number of short-cuts -- but then, if you wanted a movie that included all the detail in the book, you'd have a 15-hour opus on your hands. McDougal, in a way, represents one of these short-cuts -- because, as the book details, the campaign to bring down Bill Clinton destroyed many people's lives, most of them innocent pawns in a Machiavellian power grab orchestrated by Kenneth Starr and Co.

Even those familiar with the book, though, will be appalled by the extremes to which Starr & Co. went in their efforts to twist a "confession" out of McDougal. Torquemada would have been impressed: Placing her on death row, subjecting her to inmate abuse, even defying a judge's order to change the conditions of her confinement. The wreckage of McDougal's life is both convincing and gut-wrenching, as well as frightening to anyone who contemplates the ramifications of her ordeal for the rest of us.

Importantly, the film is quite different from Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which is much more entertaining and engaging, but at times is too clever by half. THOTP has more of the gritty feel of a straight-ahead documentary, relying on archival footage and interviews to carry the narrative, and its heavy factual orientation at times makes for a more plodding but convincing narrative.

Even more than Moore's film, however, THOTP drives home what is, to me, the most important aspect of the dilemma we face: namely, the fact that the multiple problems we now face -- whose origins, it should be clear, can be readily found in the Clinton madness -- boil down to a malignant and disgracefully dysfunctional media.

What drives the Fahrenheit 9/11 phenomenon (from which THOTP stands to immediately benefit as well), in fact, is the very presence of this dysfunction -- and the reality that a large portion of the population is perfectly aware of it. Both films present important information that should have been part of the national dialogue and which instead has been systematically excluded, suppressed and ignored. (Check out the ridiculous pattern of non-reviews that greeted the publication of THOTP, for instance.) There is in fact a great demand, a real hunger, for this information. Both films help satisfy that hunger -- and feed even more.

THOTP is both stylistically and contextually quite different from Moore's film, and in some ways is an important second voice, because it provides much of the backdrop for the latter. It's not as emotionally involving or as entertaining, but it may be more essential.

I do have one question, though: What the hell is Howard Kurtz doing in this film actually making sense and asking intelligent critical questions about the press behavior during the entire impeachment episode? Because as has been pointed out many times by many people, Howard Kurtz was one of the worst of the lot when it came to "looking the other way" regarding press malfeasance -- not to mention indulging it himself from time to time.

Well, dammit, he did ask good questions, too. Hope he practiced them before a mirror.

UPDATE: Hey, if any of you are in the Seattle area, try to get out and see this film this weekend at the Varsity in the U District. Friday night's showing -- at which Gene Lyons spoke -- was sparsely attended. If that trend continues, the film may wind up hardly showing here at all; in fact, it may get yanked after this weekend. Call your friends and tell them to go too! (Here's a handy link to the Varsity's Web site.)

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