The Hunting of the President
Directed by Nickolas Perry, Harry Thomason. (2004, NR, 89 min.)
REVIEWED By Michael King, Fri., Sept. 17, 2004
The re-redistricted crowds at SXSW lustily cheered this Friend-of-Bill production (based on the 2000 bestseller by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons) and its undeniably one-sided version of the heavily funded hard-right campaign to cut short the Clinton presidency by destroying Clinton personally. But it wasn’t only GOP operatives like Newt Gingrich or Ann Coulter who refused to sit for interviews with Conason and Lyons; Jeff Gerth (The New York Times) and Michael Isikoff (Newsweek), perhaps embarrassed to be questioned about their shameless trafficking in Arkansas tall tales, were also no-shows. The film doesn’t have the book’s detail or range, and by turns it’s portentous with trumped-up melodrama or overreaches for lame comedy. But it also adds color and nuance to otherwise obscure characters like two-bit Little Rock hustlers Larry Case and Larry Nichols, who proved eager and useful tools to the Richard Mellon Scaife-funded "Arkansas Project," or Claudia Riley, widow of the former governor, whose measured judgments of both Clinton and his accusers are delivered with dignity and grace. This still-astonishing chapter in American political life also contains a genuine, empathetic heroine – Whitewater witness Susan McDougal – and a slimy, utterly ruthless villain – the utterly corrupt, anything-but "independent" prosecutor Kenneth Starr, since duly rewarded for his shameless labors with the deanship of Pepperdine University law school. Despite all Starr’s efforts, Clinton essentially escaped his clutches, but McDougal was treated literally like a murderer and imprisoned for two years on no evidence, in a finally failed blackmail attempt by Starr to force her to lie about the Clintons and Whitewater. Even her closest friends urged McDougal to yield to prosecutors in order to save herself, and she steadfastly refused to buckle. If nothing else, the film will stand as a tribute to her singular courage. None of the other players stand out quite so dramatically – other than some embarrassing Lewinsky-esque moments, Clinton himself is mostly offstage – but there’s plenty of juicy material about the gullible (and craven) press, and a command performance from David Brock, the American Spectator hack who finally turned witness for the defense when he realized he was up to his ass in Arkansas alligators. There’s a cautionary tale here for Democrats, yes, but Paul Begala only slightly overstates the case when he describes the Scaife/Starr effort as a "right-wing attempt at a coup d’etat." The film (and book) is a record of an extremist assault on representative democracy in the name of a false moral righteousness, and deserves a wide audience.