This ten-episode drama from 2021 makes up the third instalment in the American Crime Story series. All three have been based on real life high profile criminal cases from the recent history of the U.S.
The first of these, The People Vs OJ Simpson (2016) was thoroughly absorbing and had me completely gripped throughout. I must admit I have not seen the second story, The Assassination of Gianni Versace (2018). This one centres on the 1998 White House sex scandal which culminated in the impeachment of U.S President Bill Clinton, a scandal often rather unfairly labelled ‘the Monica Lewinsky Affair.’
And it must be said, the choice of subject matter is something of a problem from the outset. While undeniably a huge scandal, the Lewinsky Affair always rather suffered from not really having any real central crime at its core. While I would not condone Clinton’s behaviour at the time, it was not criminal in the way Nixon’s behaviour during Watergate was, or in the way the Iran-Contra affair was during the Reagan administration. It is a poor choice for an anthology titled ‘American Crime Story’: it is not entirely clear even now if any serious crimes were ever committed. This was certainly not true in the cases of either Simpson or Versace. Viewers today might find it amazing that in age before the War on Terror or the current COVID-19 pandemic, so much time, effort, money and attention was wasted on establishing the exact nature of the sexual relationship between a president and his intern. The scandal only continued because of the determination of Clinton’s enemies to blacken his name and discredit his administration. To some extent, they succeeded. But the scandal often felt needlessly voyeuristic and pointless. And seeing it all played out again here, often feels the same way.
Nobody did well out of the scandal. It is a story of victims.
Monica Lewinsky was one victim. Today, unmarried and at 48, even now still younger than Bill Clinton was when he first encountered her, she not only suffered tremendous harassment and a media furore at the time, but seems destined forever to be associated with certain sex acts in a scandal which has always been named after her, rather than the chief instigator of it, i.e. Bill Clinton. Beanie Feldstein’s central performance as her is the strongest in the entire drama.
Then there is Linda Tripp, Lewinsky’s former friend. With her dowdy, unfashionable middle-aged appearance and conservative political views, Tripp is an easy figure to demonise. And yes, she did behave very badly indeed, betraying her young ‘friend’ by tape recording their phone conversations, later publicly defending these reprehensible actions by claiming she did them out of a sense of patriotic duty, but, in practice, always with one eye on a potential lucrative book deal. But Tripp more than suffered for her sins. She saw herself impersonated by John Goodman in drag on Saturday Night Live. She died in 2020, before she would have had the chance to see herself portrayed by an unrecognisable Sarah Paulson in this. Although a good performance, Paulson has expressed regret about wearing a fat suit for the role.
Another victim? Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford) whose initial allegations triggered the whole scandal in the first place. With none of the financial security or familial support, Monica Lewinsky at least received, Paula came off worse than most.
Probably its stretching things to describe Bill Clinton as a victim here but both he and Hillary suffered terrible public humiliation.. British actor, Clive Owen does a fine impression of the 42nd president although as with Sarah Paulson, he has been rendered entirely unrecognisable by make-up. The always excellent Edie Falco (of The Sopranos) plays Hillary. In retrospect, the scandal may well have guaranteed her status as a future presidential candidate while simultaneously ensuring she would never actually win the presidency itself, something which continues to have disastrous consequences both for the USA and the wider world to this day.
Of course, it’s certainly going too far to suggest the assorted legion of cranks and right-wingers who kept the scandal alive could really claim ‘victim’ status either. In the short run, they failed in their objectives: had Bill Clinton been able and willing to seek a third term in the year 2000, he would probably have won it. But in the long run, his otherwise successful presidency was tarnished by an unnecessary and tawdry scandal.
Much of the casting is interesting. Colin Hanks is good as ever as agent Mike Emmick while sitcom star Cobie Smulders is suitably malevolent as conservative battle-axe Ann Coulter. Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino, whose own promising film career in the 1990s was wrecked after she resisted the advances of the abusive producer, Harvey Weinstein plays Monica Lewinsky’s well-intentioned and well-to-do mother. Jim Rash, Margo Martindale and Blair Underwood also make welcome appearances throughout the drama.
But, overall, despite some excellent performances, a few dodgy wigs and outfits too often contribute to a sense that this is almost as sleazy and unnecessary as the original scandal itself.
And while ‘impeachment’ was a popular buzzword in 2021: disgraced former US President Donald Trump had after all just been impeached for a second time, thus making him responsible for half of all presidential impeachments in 232 years of US presidential history, it was a poor choice of title in this case. The processes of Bill Clinton’s actual impeachment barely feature in the narrative at all.