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HBO's 'Confirmation' tries to tell the whole truth, but doesn't dig deep enough

“I do love Shakespeare, and Shakespeare would love this,” sighs Senator Alan K. Simpson in HBO's Confirmation, surveying embattled would-be Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas — who's currently under fire for allegedly sexually harassing his former employee, Anita Hill.

“This is about love and hate, and cheating, and disgust, and avarice," Simpson continues, with relish. "All those things that make that remarkable bard read today.”

He's being portrayed as a bit of a rambling old coot — but there's certainly truth to what the Republican from Wyoming is saying.

The story of Thomas' confirmation hearings is a fascinating one, rife with the sort of thorny, timeless themes and issues audiences can't help but find irresistible — race, gender, sex, power, corruption.

In both substance and circumstance, it bears more than a passing resemblance to another hot (and surprisingly relevant) topic from the '90s that was recently revisited by television: O.J. Simpson's murder trial, which gripped the nation just a few years after we gathered around literal watercoolers to marvel about whether Orrin Hatch had seriously, seriously just asked a federal judge if he'd ever called himself "Long Dong Silver" at work.

But while the 2016 TV season's take on Simpson's trial was a lavish, 10-hour FX miniseries that dove deep into the case's colorful characters as well as its proceedings, Confirmation is a single TV movie — a standalone that tries to explore everything from the failed Supreme Court nomination that preceded Thomas' to the historic election that followed it, all in less than two hours.

As a result, Confirmation can't help but suffer by comparison.

Yes, the film is quickly paced, slickly made and cast with a team of heavy hitters: Scandal star Kerry Washington anchors the production as Hill, while HBO favorite Wendell Pierce takes on Thomas.

But its comparatively brief run time means that the movie barely has a chance to introduce a new wrinkle in Thomas's hearings — a lawyer claiming that Hill is suffering from delusions brought on by "erotomania," a second accuser played by Jennifer Hudson — before it's speeding on to the next bullet point.

The problem is compounded by Confirmation's decision to cede screen time even to minor players like Grace Gummer's Ricki Seidman (an investigator in Ted Kennedy's office) and Zoe Lister-Jones' Carolyn Hart (a Biden aide), cutting the pie pieces so small that it's tough for any one cast member beyond Washington or Pierce to really leave a lasting impression. (With the possible exception of Greg Kinnear, whose Joe Biden voice is positively uncanny.)

Even the film's stars have trouble crafting characters as rich and complex as American Crime Story's brilliantly flawed lawyers — or even Julianne Moore's unexpectedly complicated Sarah Palin in Game Change, another ripped-from-the-headlines HBO movie that's probably a more fair analog.

Washington's Hill is a pillar of sober stoicism and grace under pressure. The flip side, though, is that she's more of a noble cipher than a human being; there's simply not enough time to get a good read on who Hill is as a person when she's not being grilled by a committee of unfriendly senators. And the same goes for Pierce's Thomas, who's dignified but not much else. It's tough to connect the figure we see before us with the sexually voracious man whom Hill's testimony describes.

Which is part of the point, of course; the movie is much more careful about coming down on one side or another than American Crime Story was. A closing montage confirms that its sympathies lean toward Hill, but only slightly.

But in its attempt to focus only on the facts — and to include as many of them as possible — the movie ends up feeling less like a film than a well-dressed Wikipedia summary. Everything can't be American Crime Story — but after seeing how good an in-depth recreation of recent history can be, it's tough to be satisfied by anything less.

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