The Hunting of the President

(2004) ** 1/2 Unrated
89 min. Regent Entertainment. Directors: Harry Thomason, Nickolas Perry. Cast: Morgan Freeman, Paul Begala, Sidney Blumenthal, David Brock, John Camp.

Before and during the Clinton presidency, Hollywood player Harry Thomason (along with wife and creative partner Linda Bloodworth-Thomason) served as image consultant for the president. Now that Bill Clinton is out of office, Thomason is still the ultimate "Friend of Bill," dutifully protecting Clinton's public image. As the co-writer and co-director (with Nickolas Perry) of the documentary film The Hunting of the President, Thomason makes a case for Hillary's oft-derided comment "The great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president."

Thomason and Perry base their film on the best-selling book by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons. Speaking with journalists, partisan pundits, and individuals involved in the various Clinton scandals, the filmmakers piece together the vengeful tactics of the anti-Clinton movement. The resulting picture hardly shocks: since Watergate, political scandal has been the opportunistic tool of political players to oust their enemies, and journalists to make their names. Among the Clinton detractors: Everett Ham, the leader of anti-Clinton organization ARIA (the Alliance for the Rebirth of an Independent America); Cliff Jackson, the attack-dog lawyer who stoked Troopergate and allegations that Clinton dodged the draft; and private investigator Larry Case, who smelled money to be made on the Gennifer Flowers story.

Of course, Ham, Jackson, and Flowers are among the 130-plus individuals who declined or failed to respond to the filmmakers' interview requests. Case speaks on camera, and he's rewarded by having one shot of him overlaid with the whirring of robotic servo sound effects. It's style choices like these which do the most damage to The Hunting of the President. Michael Moore shows more finesse with similar techniques; to diminishing effect, Thomason and Perry spend time broadly characterizing Clinton's initial detractors as disreputable yokels, fabricate imposing images of someone who wouldn't go on camera, pointlessly fragment interviews with public domain film clips, insert at least one opinionated statement into Morgan Freeman's narration as if it were a fact, vaguely link certain figures with terms like "closely connected to" and "affiliated with," and indulge a moody, X-Files-styled score.

More's the pity, as there's compelling material wedged between the cheap tactics. Like Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, The Hunting of the President may not unearth much that's revelatory, but it does a good job of lining up its right-wing conspiracy ducks. Some screen time is wasted with generalizations, but a couple of journalists, like former CNN reporter (and Peabody Award-winner) John Camp, tell tales out of school about editorial bias. Camp says, "We were not truth-tellers; we were scandal-mongers," a thesis with which former right-wing journalist David Brock agrees. Brock, the author of Blinded By The Right, admits the dead-ends he encountered while researching stories for The American Spectator.

The recounting of Kenneth Starr's fishing expedition—particularly in the shallows of Whitewater—hits hardest. In new interviews, Susan McDougal explains why she did federal prison time rather than accept repeated plea bargains from the Independent Council's office which, to hear her tell it, would have required her to make up lies implicating Clinton in crimes he never committed. McDougal may not be squeaky clean, but her Kafka-esque tales of the irrelevance of truth certainly seem heartfelt.

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