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Television John Doyle: HBO’s Confirmation is a 90s cautionary tale that still resonates

It's a straightforward, fact-based movie about an incident in U.S. politics that happened 25 years ago. And then, it isn't straightforward at all. It leaves you reeling a bit, stunned by echoes and reverberations from today's news stories and even this year's Jian Ghomeshi trial. It's about "he said/she said" and immense feelings of hurt and betrayal.

Confirmation (Saturday, HBO Canada, 8 p.m.) is a conscientious chronicle of the highly charged hearings that preceded Justice Clarence Thomas's appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991 – hearings that became toxic because of allegations of sexual harassment by Thomas that came from law professor Anita Hill.

At first, watching this sober production one is struck by how much has changed. The hearings were shown live on prime-time TV and the all-news channels devoted countless hours of debate to them. Thomas famously called his treatment a "high-tech lynching." But they still used fax machines back then, there was no social media and even television news seemed to move in slow-motion compared with today's speedy, instant news.

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And yet, as the story unfolds, what is striking is the timeless relevance of it.

It's a fine drama, with excellent performances from Wendell Pierce (The Wire and Treme) as Thomas and Kerry Washington as Anita Hill. And it sticks to the guts of the story.

In 1991, Thurgood Marshall, the U.S. Supreme Court's first African-American justice, announced his retirement, and President George H.W. Bush decided quickly that Thomas would replace him. The Democrats wanted ammunition against Bush's appointment and Senator Ted Kennedy was anxious to get it. Anita Hill was working in obscurity as a law professor in Oklahoma when she was contacted. She told the investigators that when she had been Thomas's assistant, years before, he had harassed her by talking about sex and porn constantly and making highly inappropriate comments about his penis and sexual prowess. She wanted and expected her information to be kept secret, known only to the necessary parties. Then it got leaked.

A key scene, early on, has the FBI turning up at Thomas's door to tell what has been said about him. He's angry but subdued. Eventually his scorn is unleashed. He tells his wife ( Alison Wright ) that many of the senators who will examine his nomination have histories of sexist behaviour and worse. He's correct. Certainly Ted Kennedy is not going to lead the charge against him. It falls to Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear).

Biden is portrayed sympathetically, but one of the disturbing reverberations from Confirmation is the realization that none of the powerful politicians knows how to deal with the issue of sexual harassment. They are dismissive, clueless or both.

The scenes in which Anita Hill is questioned by the senators is uncanny. It is put to her by Republican senators that, well, Thomas didn't actually demand to have sex with her, did he? She is asked why telephone logs show she contacted him after they stopped working together. She says she was doing legal work and needed to speak to him. But, she's asked, if what she's saying is true, "Why would you speak to that man again, ever?" Hill says she regrets that, but she had to do her work, continue with her career.

Thomas denies everything. With vehemence. His famous "high-tech lynching" remark also raised the issue of race, which confounded those who tended to believe Hill. When Thomas talked about being an "uppity black man" he played a powerful card. Suddenly, the issue was not Anita Hill's testimony. It was Clarence Thomas's dignity.

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Directed by Rick Famuyiwa, from a script by Susannah Grant, Confirmation tries hard to stay fully grounded in what actually happened. Sometimes too much. Look for footage of the hearings on YouTube and you'll see they were sometimes more operatically melodramatic than depicted here. There are some subtle touches that enrich it, mind you. The powerful male politicians arguing about sex harassment are often seen from the perspective of their young female staff members, and the scorn is occasionally evident on their faces. That perspective is essentially ours, that of the viewer watching in stunned amazement. By the way, former senators Alan Simpson of Wyoming and John Danforth of Missouri have complained about depictions, but HBO is standing by the production.

In other hands, Confirmation might have been handled in a satiric manner. After all, the hearings brought the name "Long Dong Silver" into the vernacular. But for all the faults in this faithful account – Alison Wright is terribly underused as Thomas's wife – it is fitting that it be told with simplicity. Because the context of the "he said/she said" issue, and the suspicious dismissal of women who speak out about harassment, hasn't changed much at all.

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