It is an age-old story. Girl meets boy, girl is intoxicated, flattered that a boy of his status would pay so much attention to her, boy takes advantage of this and treats her mean to keep her keen, while girl over-analyses every move, becoming increasingly desperate to keep the boy’s attention. It doesn’t end happily ever after. This is the way that Impeachment: American Crime Story frames what happened between Monica Lewinsky and then-President Bill Clinton — and be warned, it is emotionally draining to watch.
The details of Lewinsky’s story have been pored over at length — was she a naïve intern, scarred for life because she got involved with the wrong man at 22 and became collateral damage in a power play by politicians and lawyers who wanted to see the end of Clinton? And is it morally acceptable to dredge up her story again for entertainment? Lewinsky is one of the producers of this drama so it can be seen in a sense as her attempt to set the record straight, looking at what happened through the lens of the Me Too movement. It is the third instalment of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck’s American Crime Story series, where they retell scandalous incidents from the Nineties, following The People v. O. J. Simpson and The Assassination of Gianni Versace.
This version of events begins after it has all unravelled, in 1998; with a terrified-looking Lewinsky being arrested by the FBI. Beanie Feldstein is mesmerising as Lewinsky. Each of her expressions conveys a whole story. Her enthusiasm at being in the White House feels genuine, as does her subsequent heartache, confusion and fear. She has been styled to look cartoonish, with a flicky ponytail and tight-fitting tops.
But the focus here is on Linda Tripp, the civil servant who secretly recorded Lewinsky’s confidential phone calls about her relationship with Clinton and died last year aged 70. Sarah Paulson, who was also in the OJ American Crime Story as prosecutor Marcia Clark, wears a padded suit to play her. It is another magnificent performance. Tripp is a recognisable office type. She has been working there for longer than some members of staff have been alive and although she has a junior job she takes it seriously. She is divorced and the highlight of her day is heating up a jacket potato in the microwave and watching the news, so her work is where she derives all her satisfaction. The office is her domain and, as she sees it, she is the only one maintaining standards — to the extent that she will lecture others on how the custom is to use staples rather than paper clips. The fact that the White House offices look so grey and lifeless makes it all the more tragic that she places so much value on it.
But when we meet her, she is under fire. She started as an administrator during the Bush years but after the suicide of her boss, Vince Foster, a Clinton confidante, she is sent to the Pentagon. She thrives on school style personal politics and gossip and we see how lonely Lewinsky plays into her hands.
Clinton is conspicuous by his absence in the first two episodes, occasionally appearing on screen to flirt with Lewinsky or talk about free healthcare for old folks. Clive Owen plays him with a prosthetic nose, which is disarming at first for those who fancied him films like Closer, but it’s a good impression. When he does come on screen he dominates and you can see how he won voters (and Lewinsky). Meanwhile, Edie Falco has presence as Hillary Clinton (is there a coded message in casting Carmela from The Sopranos as another wife who is cheated on?) and we see how hated she is from early on.
This may be a White House drama but politics remains in the background, secondary to the emotional thrust of the story. The closest it comes to West-Wing-style intrigue is when we hear about Whitewater, an investigation into the Clintons’ investments in a development, which some believe Tripp knows too much about. We do, however, see how complicated the landscape was with the case of Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford), a former Arkansas state employee who filed a sexual harassment suit against Clinton before the Lewinsky affair came out. Here she is so innocent that she doesn’t know what fellatio is, and is exploited by lawyers. Cobie Smulders has fun playing Ann Coulter, the political figure leading a pack hell-bent on bringing Clinton down.
There is plenty of Nineties nostalgia – the characters drink SlimFast and Snapple, go to step-aerobics, use pagers and huge computers and shop at Gap (Monica Lewinsky bought a sapphire-blue shirt dress that would become famous). Not everything about the Nineties can be looked back on so fondly though. The White House is staggeringly male-dominated, by white men in suits who treat Lewinsky like a pliable little girl who can do their bidding, just calling her intern as if they are all interchangeable. In fact, it is why Clinton stands out — he is the only one who asks about her. The dialogue is clever, deploying wit where appropriate (it’s written by Sarah Burgess who was nominated for an Olivier award for her play Dry Powder in 2018) and there are a lot of panning camera shots with tense music.
The danger of dramatising recent history is that people may remember it differently and commentators are already beginning to pick apart every detail of this show. But as a piece of storytelling it is compelling — and all credit to Lewinsky for having the courage to come forward and tell her version of events. There is a chink of hope watching now that the White House has changed since she was an intern, and fingers crossed that progress to equality continues.
Impeachment: American Crime Story is on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer, October 19 at 9.15pm