Milking the final droplets of the Letterman-to-Nightline hysteria -- which even had Newt Gingrich writing letters to the editor -- Larry King dug deep into the mausoleum vault last weekend and plucked out an old interview with Ted Koppel. Nightlines amply coifed host recalled the old days when just three network gatekeepers controlled access to TV news. But Koppel was canny enough to express no nostalgia, for he knows that only stegosaurs like Dan Rather maunder publicly about the pre-blog, pre-cable days when Matt Drudge never scooped the Washington Post and no network would dare show Tonya Harding and Paula Jones swapping low blows (a New York Times editorial bewailed such cultural decline just the other day).
On Sunday night, the Tiffany Network, CBS, broadcast 911, a much-trumpeted documentary that took us deeper inside the reality of the World Trade Center collapse than anything wed seen before. Its core was footage shot by two young French filmmakers, Gedeon and Jules Naudet, the latter of whom followed New York firemen into the damaged North Tower. What these brothers taped was almost literally staggering to behold: the mesmerized faces staring up at the towers, the soul-chilling sounds of bodies smashing to earth and the flinches of those who heard them fall but couldnt bear to look, the devouring darkness when the first tower crumbled -- Jules was suddenly videotaping his own blindness. Perhaps the ultimate document of the digital revolution, the footage made Dogma 95 cinema look about as hard-bitten as Americas Funniest Home Videos.
Although its Tiffany shine was long ago tarnished, CBS still clings to some vestigial pride in being classy, and given access to the brothers astonishing tapes, it proceeded to do exactly what youd expect: It shaped verite footage of dire events into an inspirational storyline. Although the tapes get their harrowing power from being raw and direct (we witness the terror and heroism for ourselves), the networks producers werent about to trust our responses. They packaged the Naudet footage within a sweet shell of manipulation -- rueful piano music, a narrator who told us exactly what to think (firemen, hurrah), levels of promotion and ideology that came as neatly layered as filo dough.
It was bad seeing Nextels CEO pop up onscreen to open the show -- the guy was using 911 as an occasion for branding. And it was terrible watching stilted Tom Ridge stand before the big words Homeland Security like an android anchorman on some dystopian TV network dreamt up by Philip K. Dick. As Ridge droned on about the Bush administrations concern for my security, I kept wishing that CBS had just broken up the show with beer commercials rather than presenting it as a high-toned patriotic special. By the end, the brothers painfully honest, observational portrait of the WTCs destruction was being treated as political propaganda. 911s storyline was all about a goofy, idealistic young Manhattan fireman named Tony learning to be a man; it led inexorably to the moment when Tony declared that, although he prefers helping people to hurting them, hed now gladly go overseas and do some killing for his country. At last, a man.
This might have been less striking if CBS hadnt cut a bit too much of the reality that the brothers risked their lives to obtain. Jules Naudet told us that there are some images that nobody should see, and I agree. But somehow the show was too clean. Not only did CBS determine that we shouldnt see even a glimpse of the human remains around the towers, the producers cut most of the swearing out of the soundtrack. When 911s host, Robert De Niro, gravely warned viewers that some of the language may be rough, I thought, well, I would certainly hope so. If Id been in a burning tower of the World Trade Center and the other one suddenly collapsed into dust, yelling Motherfuck! would strike me as being the very pinnacle of understatement.
Why is that funny? Monica Lewinsky asked plaintively when the audience began laughing at one point during the taping of Monica in Black and White, her tell-all special that HBO is broadcasting every two minutes or so. The poor girl thought they were mocking her, when they were actually just cackling with delight at being part of such a trashy-fun show.
Even more than E! and Comedy Central, HBO grasps the concept of the guilty pleasure. It knows how to tiptoe the borderline between information and exploitation, and doesnt care if it occasionally falls into the mud. (Its debacles are high-minded duds like The Laramie Project.) Although its pulpy, crowd-pleasing ways are sniffed at by the staid broadcast networks (most notoriously in a Sopranos-bashing letter by NBC chairman Robert Wright), HBO has no qualms about being sensationalistic. If the Naudet tapes had gone to HBO, we wouldve seen -- in gory detail -- exactly what the brothers documented.
For Monica in Black and White, the network paid Lewinsky handsomely to step out of the time capsule and tell her story to an audience of civilians, crew members and HBO stooges, most of whom seemed primed to take her words at face value. Were on your side, Monica, a woman cries out at one point, and it must be said that I found myself tending that way, too. Although years in the spotlight havent diminished her self-absorption, she in no way resembles the whore or mad stalker that the Clinton White House made her out to be. She seems a pleasant, dumb, needy young woman -- a randy politicians dream date.
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Monica in Black and White was produced under the cagey eye of HBOs nonfiction queen, Sheila Nevins, who has done for documentary filmmaking what N Sync Svengali Lou Pearlman did for pop music. The show is an almost perfect piece of TV packaging, from its black-and-white photography -- connoting both glamour and literal truth -- to its gleeful use of recordings that reveal Linda Tripp at her most demonic in ensnaring the young intern. The show brings up all the details that a self-serious network like CBS never would. Lewinsky is asked about being Americas leading blowjob queen and why she kept the semen-stained dress; shes comforted by another Beverly Hills High grad, who tremulously suggests that Monica had been sexually abused by one of their teachers; ultimately, shes rebuked by a 40-ish black man for being shallow and self- serving. Although the crowds upset for her, Monica thanks him for being so honest.
I doubt that shed offer the same thanks to Bill Clinton, whose legendary ability to compartmentalize borders on the sociopathic. (He sent pollsters out to ask whether he should tell the truth about the affair, and if so, how he should phrase the admission.) The Lewinsky case was always bursting with spooky undercurrents, from Tripps near-Shakespearean malevolence to Ken Starr turning into Torquemada while remaining convinced that he was as fair-minded as Abe Lincoln. Yet Monica in Black and White reminded me that Ive seen few things scarier than the furious, self-righteous conviction with which Clinton told America, I did not have sexual relations with that woman . . . Miss Lewinsky -- perfectly aware that he was lying through his teeth. You can tell Lewinsky wishes that the president had simply owned up to his deeds, like a man.
It feels quintessentially Clintonian that Monica should re-emerge just as the former presidents reputation is starting to make a comeback. In recent days, David Brooks and George Will have both used Clintons principled commitment to free trade as a way of bludgeoning Bush for his steel tariffs. Meanwhile, the ex-presidents best-known rhinoceros bird, Joe Klein (who wrote Primary Colors), has been all over the airwaves promoting his new book, The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton. Shrewdly bucking the trend of belaboring Monica, he credits Clinton with a serious substantive presidency that achieved some worthwhile domestic goals -- including tax credits for the poor and the college-bound -- and helped restore faith in the power of government.
Clinton was the ideal president for the era of tabloid TV and run-amok Web sites, for he has spent a career being the screen on which the world projected its fantasies. For William Bennett and the right, he was the symbol of post-60s amorality; for Christopher Hitchens, a metaphor for the hypocrisies and bankruptcies of the liberal left; for Monica, the dream lover who gave her Leaves of Grass (which he also gave Hillary); for Kenneth Starr, the great white whale. In The Natural, Klein offers a portrait of a lavishly gifted Clinton, whose promise may have exceeded his actual accomplishment (sort of a Fitzgerald who never wrote The Great Gatsby) but who still deserves praise for keeping the New Democrat faith. That is, when Joe Klein looks at Bill Clinton, he sees -- Joe Klein.