Clinton’s Charm Blunts His Errors in Film; ‘Good Wife’: Review

Bill and Hillary Clinton
Bill and Hillary Clinton at the 1993 Inaugural Ball in Washington. "Clinton" airs on PBS Monday at 9 p.m. and Tuesday at 8 p.m. New York time. Source: William J. Clinton Presidential Library/PBS via Bloomberg

In 1973, Hillary Rodham told her boss at the White House that her Arkansas beau was coming to visit.

“He’s going to be President of the United States,” Rodham, a recent Yale Law School grad working an entry-level job, told a skeptical Bernard Nussbaum, then-White House counsel.

Her certitude -- recounted in Barak Goodman’s absorbing documentary “Clinton” -- seems as much mission statement as romantic guile.

The ever-fascinating partnership of Bill and Hillary Clinton overshadows all else in a four-hour film that stretches from William Jefferson Clinton’s hardscrabble childhood in Hope, Arkansas, to the day in January 2001 when furniture movers had to all but drag him out of the Oval Office.

Covering both the personal and the political, and with participation from 70 Clinton administration insiders, journalists, foes and friends, “Clinton” is the eighth entry in the Public Broadcasting Service’s ongoing “Presidents” series of “The American Experience” documentaries.

This installment is among the most compelling, on par with “Reagan” and “The Kennedys,” if not matching the series’ pinnacle “Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided” in epic scope.

No Bill, Hill

In keeping with the series’ ground rules, neither the former president nor his First Lady were invited to sit for new interviews (Goodman has said he wanted to avoid allowing the documentary to become “memoir”). Their absence is barely felt, given the abundance of archival footage and personal photos that document every phase of Clinton’s life and career.

More questionable is Goodman’s decision to exclude both Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp, two key players -- unwitting or complicit -- in the Republican-led attempt to topple the Clinton presidency.

Perhaps surprisingly, the pre-Lewinsky era -- covered in the first of the film’s two parts -- is the more captivating. Goodman convincingly sketches the personality of a boy raised by a violent, alcoholic stepfather and an unconventional, working-class mother with “exuberant” hairstyles, make-up and jewelry (“Virginia was fun,” recalls a friend, with an emphasis on the last word).


Clinton, in this telling, is dutiful and ambitious, with a reckless need to be worshipped. When the brainy, straightforward Rodham approaches the flirtatious Bill in a Yale library, the two are smitten -- he with her drive and intelligence, she with his wild-haired good looks and BMOC charisma.

In keeping with other entries in the “American Experience” presidents series, “Clinton” is more admiring than critical, though it doesn’t whitewash the man’s shortcomings.

“He came to office in 1992,” says columnist (and “Primary Colors” author) Joe Klein in the film. “He left a stronger country in 2000. And it was sure was a lot of fun to watch.”

“Clinton” airs on PBS Monday at 9 p.m. and Tuesday at 8 p.m. New York time. Rating: **1/2

‘The Good Wife’

Afterglow fades fast on “The Good Wife,” the durable CBS legal drama that moves with the steady, building drive of a well-made closing argument.

Midway through its third season -- and well beyond the scorned-woman premise that gave the show its title -- “The Good Wife” has barely paused to acknowledge the long-teased sexual encounter between colleagues Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) and Will Gardner (Josh Charles) that ended the second season.

Thank goodness. Sidestepping the easy gimmick of yo-yo sexual tension -- Will they? Won’t they? Will they again? -- “The Good Wife” forges on with its fine blend of grown-up character drama and big-issue court cases.

This Sunday’s episode, “Live From Damascus,” finds Alicia and Will championing a class-action case against an American software billionaire (John Benjamin Hickey) accused of selling spyware to the repressive Syrian government.

Will, meanwhile, is facing a personal crisis: Potential disbarment for a long-ago financial transgression.

Charles, as increasingly usual, is the episode’s solid rock (Margulies is a generous star, to a fault), and Archie Panjabi as the firm’s trouble-shooting investigator Kalinda Sharma is deployed once again as the series’ most reliable weapon.

Compared to newer innovators like Showtime’s “Homeland” or even Fox’s “American Horror Story,” “The Good Wife” breaks little new ground. But it knows how to win.

“The Good Wife” airs Sunday on CBS at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:

****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
(No stars)    Worthless

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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