Movie: The Hunting of the President

Our Rating: 3.50

Credit Michael Moore with spurring the year's most unlikely cottage industry: the MoveOn-friendly documentary. Landing on a beachhead broached by Fahrenheit 9/11, Outfoxed and a handful of similar projects, The Hunting of the President stirs the pot of Democratic outrage by retroactively ridiculing the charges against William Jefferson Clinton – the phoenix-like former commander-in-chief now lending context to the 2004 campaign.

Less a vindication of the man's record than a chance to turn the character-assassination tables on his old adversaries, the film was co-directed and co-written by avowed F.O.B. Harry Thomason, producer/director of the TV series Designing Women and the Clinton-family PR pieces Legacy and Hillary 2000. So don't expect the concepts of objectivity and reporterly distance to figure all that heavily. But once you've accepted the basic allegiances of the movie (adapted from a book by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons), it imparts a historical value even its partisan smugness can't negate.

Many Americans, after all, still don't know that the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy was more than one of the First Lady's interview gaffes. Hunting retraces the anti-Bubba initiatives that sprang up like poisonous mushrooms as his political fortunes grew. Interviews with Slick Willie's staunch supporters and former persecutors (like repentant smear tactician David Brock) explain how well-funded witch hunts kept the thought-to-be-radical prez on the ropes – and how even absurd allegations were treated as fair game by the major news outlets.

The movie careens from sit-down to sit-down, squeezing tough talk out of anyone who'll comment on the nasty intricacies of Troopergate, Whitewater, etc. (From the end-credits roll call of folks who wouldn't talk, we can infer either that they're being eaten alive by their guilty consciences or that they didn't trust Thomason's journalistic integrity as far as they could bowl it.) A post-incarceration Susan McDougal shares some of the most alarming anecdotes – one has to wonder why her refusal to drop the dime on Clinton earned her jailhouse treatment customarily reserved for child-killers – though her sugary interview demeanor verges on the creepy. Why do so many Clinton disciples sound as if they could just as easily be shilling for the Reverend Moon?

As a filmmaker, Thomason takes one of Moore's favorite techniques and runs wild with it, using kitschy vintage film and TV clips to satirize the G-man zeal of Ken Starr and his ilk. Unfortunately, Thomason deserves the censure Moore has incurred for indulging stereotypes: Recitations of Arkansas-bred conspiracies are underscored by lazy blues-guitar runs – presumably, an ersatz national anthem to the simple people of the "flyovers." (And where did Clinton hail from – Kennebunkport?) The closest thing to a tribute comes from former presidential spokesman Paul Begala, who lauds Arkansans as being smoother connivers than their citified counterparts. The model he uses for this assessment is The Andy Griffith Show.

So Aunt Bee figures in this tangled history, but where's the big man himself? I didn't expect Clinton to sit for Thomason's camera – in terms of auto-hagiography, he's Knopf's bitch until further notice – but by focusing almost entirely on the actions of his inquisitors, the movie turns a two-term president into the ultimate victim. We never hear how any of Clinton's public gestures may have pushed the ball of his harassment further downhill – just a fleeting, tough-love admission that his Oval Office indiscretions made one or two of his compadres "mad" at him. Thomason toes the party line that any mistake Clinton made was a totally personal matter; so is this film, to its detriment.

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