Women Reclaim The Narrative Of The Clinton Sex Scandal In 'Impeachment'
Here's what I found most impressive about FX's Impeachment: American Crime Story — though Monica Lewinsky is a producer on the show, even she doesn't get out of this tale unscathed.
It's true, Lewinsky fares best among the major characters here. Clive Owen's Bill Clinton is a smooth-talking Jekyll and Hyde with an Arkansas twang – sensitive and caring when they're having secret trysts in the White House, angry and ruthless when she challenges him. Annaleigh Ashford's Paula Jones is an earnestly dimwitted deer in the world's biggest headlights; caught between conservative activists intent on weaponizing her horrifying story of sexual harassment by Clinton and a callous husband hoping to turn any fame reflected from her into an acting gig for himself.
And there's Sarah Paulson's Linda Tripp. Made dowdier by a controversial fat suit and near-impenetrable helmet of blond hair, Paulson manages to evoke both pathos and revulsion playing the frustrated administrative secretary who turned secretly-recorded conversations of Lewinsky venting about her affair with President Clinton over to federal investigators.
Still, Impeachment depicts Lewinsky as almost impossibly naïve and smitten with Clinton as their affair began in 1996; Booksmart star Beanie Feldstein excels at embodying the then-22-year-old's vacillating moods. One minute, Lewinsky is pining by the phone and pestering Clinton's secretary when he's clearly blowing her off. The next moment, she's plunged into angry hysterics when the president resurfaces to toy with her a bit more before withdrawing again.
They even show the infamous thong flashing incident in the White House. (Though, thankfully, no sex scenes or cigars and only passing references to that blue dress.)
Through it all, until investigators from independent counsel Kenneth Starr scoop her up at a shopping mall while she's waiting to meet with Tripp, Impeachment's Lewinsky seems oddly unaware of the powder keg her affair with Clinton is. Then the news breaks and everyone's lives are buffeted by a series of Saturday Night Live skits, Tonight Show monologues and horrifically invasive investigative stories.
But there are times when the story gives Lewinsky a steely backbone, including the moment when she demands federal investigators not remove Tripp from the room before they begin their interrogation. "Make her stay and watch," Feldstein's Lewinsky spits at them. "I want that treacherous bitch to see what she's done to me."
Finding New Meaning in an Old Story
The key to FX's American Crime Story anthology series — which has tackled the murder trial of O.J. Simpson and the killing of Gianni Versace in previous iterations — is showing new, telling revelations in a story the audience already thinks it knows well. Impeachment scores on this count, mostly by focusing on the three women whose stories were most distorted by the media and politicians at the time: Jones, Tripp and Lewinsky.
Like the inaugural American Crime Story season focused on O.J. Simpson back in 2016, Impeachment is based on a Jeffrey Toobin book, A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President. (Given his own recent, um, difficulties with a Zoom call-centered scandal, I'm doubting Toobin will be making the publicity rounds for this production.) Playwright and screenwriter Sarah Burgess served as showrunner for Impeachment, with no involvement from Toobin.
There is a sense here of women reclaiming and retelling a narrative once largely controlled by male journalists, politicians, comedians and activists.
Tripp gets the most nuanced treatment, humanized even as she is shown to be an unlikeable woman given to exaggerating her importance and feeling discarded when she is transferred out of the White House. Much as she tries to cast her befriending of Lewinsky and recording of her private conversations as some sort of intervention, Tripp also wants to use her knowledge for something she's never had before.
To finally matter in a town where women with jobs like hers rarely do.
(It's a sign of Paulson's skill at sympathetic performances that, even after Impeachment shows Tripp's baldfaced betrayal of Lewinsky to Starr's investigators, you still feel as bit sorry for her as she sits with her grown kids to watch an actual SNL skit where beefy male actor John Goodman played her.)
Predicting Digital Gossip and Hyperpartisanship
There are other, juicy tidbits here. Billy Eichner is pitch perfect as Matt Drudge, the webmaster whose leaking of a Lewinsky story Newsweek delayed publishing ushered in the world of cultivating digital gossip for pageviews. And Cobie Smulders is scarily arch as Ann Coulter, the conservative activist pushing to turn the president's affair into an impeachment that could drive a liberal leader from office.
Another performance I really enjoyed was Owen's turn as Clinton. Outfitted with a large, prosthetic nose — a surprising number of characters here have them — and lilting drawl, he plays the scandal-plagued president in a more reflective, subdued way. This choice makes his Clinton seem less like a parody and more like an actual person. (More surprising is the near-invisibility of Edie Falco's Hillary Clinton in early episodes; she doesn't get a major scene until the season's seventh episode.)
Lewinsky has said her affair with the president was consensual. But the series shows Jones and former White House volunteer aide Kathleen Willey, played by Elizabeth Reaser, alleging that Clinton harassed or assaulted them without their consent. Owen's measured performance highlights the possibility that a smart, self-assured man like Clinton could still be capable of such terrible acts.
What Impeachment doesn't explain — at least in the seven episodes I saw — was a question only presented as fictionalized banter in the writer's room at Jay Leno's Tonight Show. Why did Clinton have the affair with Lewinsky in the first place, knowing how closely his conservative opponents were examining his life for any hint of scandal?
And why did he pick Lewinsky, leading her to believe they had a serious relationship when it was obvious — at least, on his side — that he would never blow up his political career and his life for an unknown 20-something intern young enough to be his daughter?
Impeachment isn't as revelatory as People v. O.J. Simpson or stylish as The Assassination of Gianni Versace. But it does push viewers to reconsider a moment when media, partisanship, sexual politics and celebrity took a hard turn toward the reality we're now living in today.
It's not always comfortable viewing, especially for those of us who might remember laughing along as the world gleefully shamed Lewinsky, Tripp and Jones for their looks, weight and assumed appetites.
But to understand how far we have come — and have not — on these issues, it might come close to essential viewing.
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