Please Note: The screen captures used here are taken from promotional images provided by PBS, not the Blu-ray edition under review.
It is both disturbing and unsurprising that The American Experience: Clinton, the recent PBS documentary on the multiple rises and falls of our 42nd president, plays like a melodrama that makes frequents dips into soap opera before righting itself again. Like Clinton's presidency itself, Clinton is by turns juicy, compelling, and nauseatingly excessive in its entertainment value and the morbid fascination of it all. For those of us who lived through the Clinton years (and the first vote I ever cast for a presidential candidate was for Mr. Clinton in 1996), that all rings very true; too much so for comfort, was the feeling I had while watching it, and I suspect that anyone of my generation or older, regardless of their politics, will feel more or less the same way. (The right, of course, despised the unremittingly centrist Mr. Clinton just as they hate the similarly middle-of-the-road current president, somehow having mistaken them both for actual leftists. But as his own press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, states in retrospect for Clinton director Barak Goodman's camera, the compromising, workfare-instigating Mr. Clinton also disappointed his supporters and allies just as often as he was able to magically renew our confidence and recover our fealty.) Via present-day interviews with a variety of Clinton associates and experts (both pro and con) as well as footage from the copious TV coverage granted the alternating beloved and demonized but always charismatic Clinton, the program gives us the entirety of his biography and political career, from the time he was born until he left office in 2000, in a neatly, supply organized way that omits no detail, however triumphant or tawdry, of his life, loves, and presidency.>
Clinton is divided into two parts. (That statement actually rings true in more ways than one, as a psychological profile of the former president based on what we see in Clinton would attest, but what I mean is that the show has a part 1 and a part 2.) The first, "The Comeback Kid," goes into the origins of the truly underprivileged, conflicted young Clinton, whose father died before he was born and whose struggling, alcoholic stepfather showed him firsthand what a downward spiral external/politically-related economic and job circumstances could throw the inner life of a family into. Always well-liked and regarded as leadership material, Clinton fled the dark side of his life by becoming an ambitious, extroverted student, a path that eventually led him to Cambridge, where he met his future wife, Hillary Rodham, a fellow American student much more cerebral and respected than (as well as equally ambitious to) the bumbling yet brilliant Clinton, with his mental quickness and poor grades. Upon his return to the States, Clinton headed to Arkansas to start up his long-planned political career, and Hillary, much to the surprise of those in Washington, D.C. who saw her going much further than the impoverished and ill-educated backwater of Arkansas, followed him, marrying him and giving birth to their daughter, Chelsea. After an initial failed congressional bid, Clinton became Arkansas's attorney general, then its governor. His ambition and impatience to fix everything in the broken state at once led him to lose a second term of governorship, but as Hillary Rodham had once confidently boasted in Washington, D.C., Clinton was going to be president someday, and whatever else came between the famously troubled couple--Clinton's womanizing; the difficulty Hillary had with hiding her smarts and confidence from an evidently quite sexist public who preferred their first ladies to influence the Commander-in-Chief covertly and not openly; and, of course, the Lewinsky scandal for which Clinton will sadly forever be remembered, which takes up most of Clinton's part 2--political ambition mixed with genuine concern for the American public is what held them together through it all.
The archival material--stills from throughout Clinton's early and student years, a selection of sometimes very funny, very dated early campaign spots, and any appearances Clinton himself made during his rise to national prominence, along with, of course, careful but bountiful selections from the 24-hour cable news cycle whose rise coincided with the Clinton presidency--collected and assembled by Goodman and his team shows evidence of some serious and extensive research as well as good eye and ear for organizing the far-flung chaos of historical events into a more or less linear shape (though they have skillfully structured the program so that it begins with Clinton's tearful 1998 White House Rose Garden apology to the American people, then recedes back through the layers of his life in a Russian-doll pattern before reversing course to go forward in time again, eventually bringing us back to that 1998 humiliation). Of particular note is the attention given not just to Clinton's domestic roles (including leader-in-mourning for the Oklahoma City bombing) but to his international struggles to mediate Israeli-Palestinian peace and the pain he felt when trying, not always successfully, to balance the U.S.'s interests and its peacekeeping/interventionist roles in the Somalia, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia. And the huge number and wide variety of people that Goodman and co. have chosen to interview--from former Clinton associates like Myers and Harold Ickes to a variety of historians and journalists (including Christiane Amanpour and formerly anonymous Primary Colors author Joe Klein) with diverse Clinton-related experiences and opinions to opponents like Trent Lott and Linda Tripp's Disney-villainess literary agent and bilious conservative gadfly Lucianne Goldberg, with perennial commentator Gail Sheehy and even Kenneth Starr himself popping in--makes for both a brisk clip to the series' three and a half hours, which go by quickly, and, more often than not, a point-counterpoint rhythm that lets us feel like we're getting more than just one point of view.
But as entertaining and even informative in its way as Clinton is, there's something ultimately unsatisfying, too slick or too hollow, about it. Clinton's detractors (on the right and left) thought they smelled a used car salesman, and although Campbell Scott's delivery of the program's well-written narration lends a sense of gravitas, the editing style and Joel Goodman's overemphatic, overused music can easily make one feel the same thing about this program. It is a fascinating watch that's never less than engaging, but it is also a little sick-making, and not just because recalling Clinton's presidency is bound to make any of us feel one degree of moroseness or another, whatever other feelings it might be mixed in with; it's more because the program has the feel of being all delicious, gratifying, fleetingly interesting, but ultimately empty calories. This is neither to say that it's not a well-made show nor that it doesn't get the story right or offer multiple well-articulated points of view on who he was as a person and as a politician from people more or less qualified to discuss it. If you take it as strictly informational and entertaining, then you're meeting it on its level; it is a reasonably well-told story. If you're looking for substance, innovative or independent thought, or analysis beyond the timeline and the already well-known takes on what Clinton was and what his presidency means (both within his party and from without), then you're better off looking elsewhere.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Clinton is made up almost entirely of bountiful early to mid-90s TV clips, some from even earlier, which in their generally scratchy, popping (for anything celluloid) and, more frequently, blurry, fuzzy, and bland-colored (that '90s video technology) lending the whole affair an authentically-dated aura. (Yes, the PQ of TV really did look that bad once upon a time.) The present-day interviews are clear, bright, and warm, and they would make for a textbook illustration of how much DV technology improved over old analog video, and how far DV itself has progressed. The Blu-ray presentation of all of it, whether from higher or poorer-quality source material, is absolutely faithful through and through. The program is presented here in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, encoded as an AVC/MPEG-4 and mastered at 1080/24i.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is flawless.
The American Experience: Clinton is really good television, truth be told, in the sense that it goes down as easily as an episode of Dallas (which, partly due to its own slick, Behind the Music-like style and partly to the actual, unavoidably rococo course of Clinton's presidency, it resembles too closely for comfort). But it doesn't live up to any standards of rigor you would apply to an actual theatrically-released documentary; it is ultimately shallower than it needs to be. It may have been more or less depressing with more historical context and tracing of Clinton's policies, their effects, and the rifts they caused between him and the Republicans as well as between him and the left wing of the Democratic Party, but it certainly would have been more substantive. Be that as it may, though, it's a long program that manages to move surprisingly briskly while remaining accurate and entertaining, covering a significant amount of ground in a way that engages, and entertains, and informs, so it's worth a look as a thumbnail introduction to/reminder of a presidency that does, as Primary Colors already demonstrated while Clinton was still in office, make a helluva good yarn. Recommended