‘The Clinton Affair,’ ‘Enemies’ probe past, with eye on present

Posted at 7:23 AM, Nov 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-16 09:37:26-05

The very busy Alex Gibney has two documentary series premiering Sunday night, and in a way, they’re complementary: “The Clinton Affair” looks at events leading to President Clinton’s impeachment — featuring an extensive interview with Monica Lewinsky — while “Enemies: The President, Justice & the FBI” explores a history of such clashes, with an eye very much on the White House’s current occupant.

Both projects tackle the questions raised by investigating presidents, the use of special prosecutors and the need for independent curbs on executive power, which isn’t exactly a veiled referendum on what’s happening now. The four-part “Enemies” — inspired by Tim Weiner’s book — extends through the current Russia investigation, so much so that Showtime noted the near-100-minute finale will still be tweaked right up until air time.

Granted, a six-part documentary might seem like a lot to devote to “The Clinton Affair,” but the filmmakers flesh out the narrative by interviewing most of the key players, foremost among them Lewinsky. What emerges is a comprehensive portrait of not only Bill and Hillary Clinton but the forces arrayed against them, and how the former’s behavior “handed the sword to his enemies.”

Timed to the 20th anniversary of those proceedings, Gibney and director Blair Foster have the latitude to go back to Clinton’s election, including the accusation of infidelity that emerged during the campaign.

Later, the film chronicles the lawsuit brought by Paula Jones against Clinton, and how the president’s refusal to settle the case ultimately let the Lewinsky relationship, and Clinton’s lies about it, become a threat to his presidency.

The title notwithstanding, “The Clinton Affair” derives much of its power from Lewinsky, discussing the beginnings of her relationship with the president — and all the clandestine activity that entailed — her betrayal by Linda Tripp, and the realization she was going to be dragged into the public eye.

Lewinsky says she hopes new documentary will ensure her experience ‘never happens to another young person’

Lewinsky treads gingerly around the intimate aspects of her story. But her composure breaks when recalling being interrogated by FBI agents, asking to speak with her mother and feeling “scared and mortified” about the public maelstrom that awaited her.

The most telling observation has to do with the way the Clintons responded to the onslaught of attacks aimed at them, and how being the constant targets of political invective colored their reactions in a way that often reflected badly on them. Those tendencies — forged during his presidency — can’t help but echo through thoughts the email scandal that hovered over her 2016 campaign.

The documentary also sheds light on other issues, including feminism, media and pop culture. There’s jarring footage, for example, of late-night hosts mocking Jones in a wince-inducing manner — depicting her with a fake nose on “The Tonight Show.”

The Clintons aren’t interviewed, but enough friends, lawyers and confidants are to provide a glimpse of their view from inside the fishbowl. And even when it doesn’t say so, “The Clinton Affair” effectively conveys that what transpired 20 years ago isn’t mere history; rather, the ripples are still being very much felt today.

Similarly, “Enemies” begins with J. Edgar Hoover’s iron-fisted reign at the FBI, before getting into the meat of the narrative, rifling through Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair and Clinton investigation. The four-part project then culminates with an extended finale devoted heavily to former FBI director James Comey — first in his 2004 clash with President George W. Bush’s administration over authorizing domestic surveillance, and his subsequent firing by Trump.

Comey refused an interview, but his self-narrated book-on-tape offers plenty of perspective, augmented by the likes of former National Security Agency director Michael Hayden and former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

In its totality, “Enemies” delivers a reminder — again, not subtle in its intent — that executive authority has repeatedly tested constitutional boundaries, moments that call upon the justice system to step forward and safeguard democratic ideals.

“The FBI wasn’t going to be pushed around by the Nixon administration,” Weiner notes in the opening chapter. It’s a decades-old showdown, but like most of “The Clinton Affair” and “Enemies: The President, Justice & the FBI,” it feels designed more like an extended preview of coming attractions.

“The Clinton Affair” will air Nov. 18-20 at 9 p.m. on A&E. “Enemies: The President, Justice & the FBI” premieres Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. on Showtime.