In many ways, the new HBO film Confirmation, about Anita Hill's testimony at the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, looks like another of the network's high-profile recent-history reenactment pageants, like Recount or Game Change, in which top-drawer movie stars are cast as political figures whom they moderately resemble and events are spun in a way that exacts retroactive revenge for high crimes and misdemeanors against American liberalism. In other words: a winner, albeit a shallow one—but then, if we wanted profound victories, we would be voting in off-year elections and not waiting for HBO to reward our right-on-ness.

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If Confirmation fails to deliver on that level, it's for two main reasons. The first is obvious: Watching a reenactment of the repugnant travesty of those hearings grants no pleasure whatsoever, even when the subtext is blatantly aimed at making the likes of Arlen Specter, Alan Simpson, and Orrin Hatch sound and look like the moral hounds they were and are. But we know that already. Oddly enough, there's still an element of "too soon" hanging over the 25 years that separate then and now, especially when you consider that Clarence Thomas is still riding out the cushy lifetime appointment that hung in the balance of the hearings to begin with.

The second reason is, I suspect, because the filmmakers aren't looking for ways to flatter their audience into feeling good for sympathizing with Anita Hill. Despite the fact that a majority of Americans apparently claimed to believe Thomas when the hearings took place, there's never a moment in Confirmation where it's even a credible option not to believe her... unless you're the kind of person who doesn't believe women when they talk about their bosses obsessively describing pornography, comparing their genitals to those of porn stars, suggesting they watch porn together, suggesting they go on dates, and generally forcing sex to the center of the conversation at all times.

But the moral distinction of the film lies in the restraint with which it portrays Thomas. Based on what we're shown, he's just a proud husband, father, and public servant who is increasingly indignant at having to answer these claims. The film doesn't show or tell us that he's guilty of anything. It preserves the terms every spectator had in watching the original spectacle: He said, she said.

But then there is Anita Hill played with almost avant-garde boldness by Kerry Washington (you forget what it was like before everyone in the world knew how to talk to a camera). By showing this learned, dignified woman forced to recall the demeaning conversations she'd been subjected to, forced to repeat the details, forced to explain why she didn't come forward before (duh), forced then to endure the suggestion that she was only imagining these events on account of suffering from "erotomania," and all manner of other shame tactics, Confirmation shifts the burden of proof away from Hill, and even away from Thomas (though he does pull some despicable shit on his own behalf), and toward her inquisitors and his defenders.

That's why the film is so jarring to watch, and so powerful. Not because it makes you remember Long Dong Silver and "Who put a pubic hair on my Coke?" but because THESE PEOPLE ARE STILL IN CHARGE OF THE COUNTRY! One of them is the vice president. And one, shamefully, is on the Supreme Court.

Though the form demands something in the way of a happy ending—in this case, the election of more women to Congress than ever before and sexual harassment being reported at a vastly increased rate—the overwhelming feeling as the credits roll is not how different things are now. It's how not different they are.

A Senate hearing isn't a legal proceeding, as Jeffrey Wright's lawyer explains to Hill. "It's political theater." Leave it to director Rick Famuyiwa (who made last year's smart, subversive Dope), writer Susannah Grant (who excels at smarter-than-they-need-to-be "issues" dramas like Erin Brockovich and 28 Days), and Washington, who was executive producer of the film, to be aiming at something more challenging and way more edifying than the political theater HBO specializes in.

Confirmation is about the gulf between who we think we are and who we actually are, a differential that plays out every day in ways both consequential and trivial. The absence of a big serotonin-hit dramatic payoff at the end of the film should be a clue that the solution might lie within.