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Impeachment: American Crime Story Offers Riveting Angle on History

Watching Ryan Murphy’s latest chapter in his “American Crime Story” anthology series, I was struck by his use of that first word. It’s become trendy to tack the word “American” onto dramatic titles to signify importance—this has something to say about our country—and the over-use of it has kind of backfired in a way that often indicates hollow pretension more than quality. However, Murphy isn’t just casually drawing a line to his hit “American Horror Story” series. There’s something embedded in the stories of O.J. Simpson, Gianni Versace, and Monica Lewinsky that feels distinctly “American.” The circus of media that basically put up its tents around O.J. and never went home; the quest for fame and recognition that led to the murder of a fashion icon—they could only happen here. And Murphy definitely takes that approach to reshaping the narrative around Monica Lewinsky, the blue dress, and the toppling of a U.S. President, highlighting how American politics intertwined with personal issues to captivate the world. Some of Murphy and writing partner Brad Falchuk’s writing decisions don’t always work, but this is a propulsive, incredibly watchable show, not really pulling the curtain back on a story you already know but turning that story into high drama, filled with fantastic performances. It may not have the nuance of “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” but few shows do—it remains Murphy’s greatest achievement—and it stands on the top tier of 2021 dramatic programming, allowing a look at one of the most memorable political chapters of the ‘90s through the modern lens of hindsight. It's part of how America got here.

Don’t worry: Murphy and company aren’t really interested in the tawdry retelling of an affair. Leave your cigar and little blue dress jokes at the door. In fact, the affair between President Bill Clinton (Clive Owen) and Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) is backdrop to centering the story of Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson) when the show opens. Starting in the Whitewater days of the White House, “Impeachment” ties a lot back to the death of Vince Foster, which aggravated Tripp and left her without an ally in the White House, where she also reportedly heard about a moment of sexual aggression by President Clinton on Kathleen Willey (Elizabeth Reaser) that would come up again later. As she was shuttled off to the Pentagon, she was convinced she was about to part of something big on a national stage, and “Impeachment” really portrays Tripp as an opportunistic predator, someone who was drawn to her new colleague with a story about dating Bill Clinton because it allowed her to be a part of the story.

Scenes in which Tripp meets with literary agent Lucianne Goldberg (Margo Martindale) or gets excited about conversations with Newsweek really make Tripp out to be a true villain, especially in scenes wherein it feels like she pushes Monica back to Bill when she just wants to let the relationship go. Some of this is a bit overdone, and there’s a bit too much of it, but Paulson is an incredible actress who finds a way to convey the insecurity of people who thrive on misery. Her Linda Tripp constantly makes everything about her, complaining about the trauma of the situation she’s in without consciously understanding that not only is it of her own making but something she desperately needs.

The first half of the 10-episode season focuses on Linda Tripp’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky and how it lead to the impeachment, but it's cast against everything else that would impact this case, particularly the allegations of Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford), who is portrayed in a way that sometimes feels cruel. The dramatic point is that both Lewinsky and Jones—and, really, a lot of women in these situations—were pushed and pulled by people who didn’t have their best interests at heart. Taran Killam plays Paula’s boyfriend Steve Jones as an aggressive, jealous type who wants public shaming of Clinton more than a financial settlement, and Judith Light captures her attorney in a similar fashion. Everyone in this narrative saw something they could get from a relationship between an intern and the leader of the free world from those next to Clinton’s alleged victims to the people who made their careers on this story like Matt Drudge (Billy Eichner), Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders), and Ken Starr (Dan Bakkedahl). The writing effectively captures that very American opportunism that leaves victims behind. No one cared about the abuse of power in this story as much as how that abuse could give them power of their own.

Paulson is again the center of a Murphy show, but the performances are strong throughout “Impeachment.” The project clearly wants to reshape the narrative that turned Monica Lewinsky into a late-night punchline (and a montage of them is particularly barbed at the hypocrisy that shamed the victim of an abuse of power) and Feldstein does an admirable job of making her three-dimensional. I wish the show gave Monica more agency to drive the story than Linda in the first few episodes, but the baton basically gets passed to her once the government descends on Monica and Feldstein is effective in capturing the emotions of a young woman who became a household name overnight. Everyone on the fringe is having fun—Smulders does a great Coulter—and Owen is fascinating as Clinton, leaning into the quiet, soft-spoken, slight smile that made the President so charming. It’s a surprising casting choice that completely works. (It should be noted that Edie Falco plays Hillary Clinton but barely appears in the first seven episodes sent for press. One imagines that will change in the final three—and she does have her first sizable scene in episode seven.)

What is the story of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky? And what makes it so American? The retelling of the rise of internet journalists like Matt Drudge has to include this chapter, and it feels like a harbinger of the increasingly partisan politics that have dominated recent discourse. More and more, it seems like real people and their stories get smashed under the stampede of people determined to turn them into political or personal capital. And the sharp, engaging writing on “Impeachment: American Crime Story” really understands that aspect of how an affair became a political dividing line. How very American.

Seven episodes screened for review. Premieres on FX on September 7th with episodes on Hulu the next day.

 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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