Putting Lewinsky in her place

HBO shows the lurid presidential controversy in historical context, and paves the way for worthy documentaries to come.


March 03, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Monica Lewinsky and the term social conscience might not seem like they belong in the same sentence.

But, if there is anything still resembling a social conscience in American television, it is found in documentaries. It was that way in 1961 on CBS when the network aired Edward R. Murrow's Harvest of Shame, about the plight of migrant workers in America, and it is that way today mostly on public television's PBS and premium cable's HBO.

HBO's American Undercover series, its showcase for documentaries, returns tonight with Monica in Black and White, a controversial film made possible by America's finest television channel paying the former intern who had a sexual relationship with President Clinton to talk about it. HBO declined this week to say how much it paid Lewinsky.

As a journalist, I abhor the transaction that made this film possible. But, as a television critic who has borne sad witness in the last 20 years to the new media philosophy that says there is no place on the tube for anything that can't turn a profit, I can live with Monica in Black and White as a tradeoff for all the other Sunday night documentaries in coming weeks that it helps makes possible. I have screened three of those films, and each is a powerful story from outside the mainstream eloquently told. More on them in a minute.

Documenting a presidency

Monica is HBO's way of cutting through the clutter of new programs making debuts this spring and getting enough viewers inside the tent to keep America Undercover viable in the corporate world of AOL Time Warner, which owns the channel. Beyond that, though, Monica is an intriguing film in its own right that could come to serve as one of the more important documents on the Clinton presidency.

Sheila Nevins, the HBO programmer responsible for a documentary division that has won 43 Emmys, 10 Oscars and 16 Peabody Awards, said her initial response to the suggestion that she make a film on Lewinsky was, "Why do I want to do a documentary about Monica Lewinsky?"

But Nevins said she agreed to meet Lewinsky "out of curiosity." Two things struck her in connection with that meeting, Nevins explained during a press conference last month in Los Angeles.

First, the buzz Lewinsky stirred among younger employees at HBO made Nevins think that maybe young adults see her in a much different way than their parents and grandparents do.

"[The younger employees] wanted to know, what was Monica like? What did she look like? What did she say? They wanted to talk to her, they wanted to ask her things," Nevins said.

Second, after talking to Lewinsky, Nevins said she started to think, "She [Lewinsky] was a piece of history and she had never been put in any kind of historical context.

"And, so, I thought if we could possibly take her peers and have them ask her questions. And if we could then run a timeline next to that. And if we could also show how the media reacted to this timeline and the presence of Monica and the experience, we might be able to look back into this time capsule and see what all the fuss was about," Nevins said.

Questions and answers

The conversation between Lewinsky and her peers took place over the course of three days at New York City's Cooper Union in spring 2001, with Lewinsky sitting on a stage fielding questions from college and graduate students in American history, constitutional law and psychology. Under terms of her immunity deal with the special prosecutor, which expired Jan. 22, 2001, she had been unable previously to discuss many aspects of the relationship with Clinton.

Intercut with the questions and answers at Cooper Union is news footage and file film of the major events in the Lewinsky-Clinton relationship going back to her arrival as a 22-year-old White House intern in 1995. Along with the chronology, the filmmakers also craft a narrative showing the media reacting to [read: generally reproducing without question] various White House depictions, characterizations and flat-out lies about Lewinsky.

The catalog of White House propaganda alone would make this worth the time for most viewers. But the film works on a couple of other levels as well. Whether you think Lewinsky was mainly a victim or a vamp, there is something here for you in the questions from people her age. Two questions near the end of the program are especially bare-knuckled.

But, most of all, the film does put her in a historical context of a presidency self-absorbed with damage control, spin-doctoring and image-making. And to those who say none of this silliness matters anymore in light of Sept. 11, I say you're wrong.

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