Last night PBS debuted part one of its American Experience look at the presidency of Bill Clinton, with all its triumph and scandal and fraught middle ground. It was an entertaining, oddly familiar look at the recent past, a time that seems in some ways no different from now.
Written and directed by the handily named Barak Goodman, Clinton takes a mostly glancing look at Clinton's early years — the death of his father, his active high school years — before getting into the meat of his political life. Goodman makes sure to establish Clinton's try, fail, come back, succeed pattern early on, starting with his failed congressional run in the early 1970s. After that defeat we follow the story to his Attorney General victory, the first gubernatorial win, followed by a loss, then followed by another victory. There's a kind of easygoing yet rollicking lyrical rhythm to the ever-mounting story, a rise to power and success that's not so meteoric that you can't stop for a breather every once in a while.
Of course those slower periods can allow for some darkness to creep in, and indeed it did for Clinton. Gennifer Flowers and Whitewater come into play in the first part of Clinton, while of course the impending doom of Lewinskygate looms on the horizon. The documentary is fairly evenhanded when it comes to both scandals and policy failures, though the overall tone is rather awed and reverential, so the criticisms sort of sound like narrator Campbell Scott is simply trying to humanize a god. It's unlikely that this or really any other piece of work on Clinton will attempt, successfully or not, to deify him the way Ronald Reagan has been, but there are moments in Clinton that feel guided by a pretty heavy hand.