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TV Eye

To Tell the Truth

By Belinda Acosta, March 8, 2002, Screens

There are at least two versions to every story -- and then there's the truth. The truth lies somewhere between the lines, between pauses and averted glances. In the case of the Hollywood and Washington political machines, the truth relies on the spin. Such is the case with two television events, the subjects of which have seized the nation's attention.

The first is Monica Lewinsky. She stars in Monica in Black and White, which kicked off the new season of HBO's America Undercover Sundays series on March 3. Lewinsky was one of the real-life players in a 60-million-dollar drama that featured Lewinsky, then-president Bill Clinton, and an infamous blue dress.

The second subject that has captured the public's attention is 9/11 and its aftermath, as evidenced by the slew of specials soon to be hitting the tube, the first of which is New York Firefighters: The Brotherhood of 9/11, which airs on the Discovery Channel tonight [Friday].

But back to Lewinsky. The woman has little left to hide after the Starr Report. What's new to learn? But more importantly, what does it say about a public that is apparently still hungry for more Monica?

As expected, Monica in Black and White provides a sympathetic view of Lewinsky. Smartly filmed in black-and-white, she sits before a rapt audience fielding questions about her affair with the president and the events leading up to it. This candidness comes now that Lewinsky's gag order, agreed upon with the Independent Council, expired in January of this year.

Interspersed throughout her responses are archival news footage, taped conversations between Lewinsky and Linda Tripp, as well as a chronology of political events surrounding the affair. What emerges quite starkly is the role the media and the Washington political machine played in spinning the story into a frenzy, while raising troublesome questions about the rights of ordinary citizens when pitted against the government, and how a foolish -- but all too human -- dalliance was seized upon to bring down the president of the United States.

However, that is not Lewinsky's focus. She is more concerned with her hurt, her pain, and her humiliation. Since Lewinsky shows herself to be a bright and articulate woman, one wishes she were able to move past this to more directly indict the larger system that managed to seize upon one ill-fated relationship, and spin it into a national crisis.

The week prior to Monica in Black and White, numerous daytime and news talk shows discussed what Lewinsky gets out of presenting herself in such a forum. The implication was that she had no business profiting from the scandal. But what of the late-night jokesters, cable network pundits, and other talking heads who leveraged their careers on the back of the Lewinsky scandal, boosting their ratings and turning Lewinsky into the butt of jokes? She doesn't go there very deeply, because ultimately, this is not what the audience craves. The majority of the audience embraced Lewinsky's hurt, nursing it for a while as their own. Which made me wonder: Are we a nation of hanky-junkies?

The same thing happens in New York Firefighters: The Brotherhood of 9/11. At the risk of getting angry letters telling me how un-American I am, let me first say that there are some truly touching moments in the Discovery Channel special, as when a teenage daughter of a fallen firefighter realizes that her father won't walk her down the aisle when she gets married someday. If that doesn't get your mascara running, her brother leans into her to tell her he'll do it.

Perhaps because the pain is too fresh, the special fails to move much past the mourning to the larger issue of how these U.S. citizens, victims of the front line of action, have been pulled from their relative indifference of global politics to the co-stars of a world event that will shake the nation and the world for years to come.

Pain is insular and strangely enticing even as it stings. There is something frightening about this representation of pain that feeds itself, without offering much in the way of insight. If this is what we have to look forward to in the 9/11 specials to come, I wonder if we will ever be better prepared to cope with our role in global politics and if we'll continue to confuse the experience of pain with the definition of truth.

Monica in Black and White airs March 8 at 9pm on HBO2; and March 14 at 10pm and the morning of March 28 at 4am on HBOS. New York Firefighters: The Brotherhood of 9/11 premieres March 8 at 8pm on the Discovery Channel.

Other Premieres and Specials

The Laramie Project, adapted from the stage play about a town's reaction to the slaying of gay teen Matthew Shepard, premieres March 9, 7pm, on HBO.

CBS airs 9/11 on March 10, hosted by Robert De Niro with no commercial interruptions.

The Eighth Annual Screen Actor's Guild Awards also airs March 10, 7pm, on TNT.

March 11 marks the premiere for two new series: American Embassy, 8pm, on Fox, and The Colin Quinn Show, 8:30pm on NBC.

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