It's been a bad couple of weeks for anyone who has any wistful memories of the Clinton administration, and the two couples at the heart of it. First, Al and Tipper Gore announced that they were separating, surprising news, given their long-standing reputation as passionate partners. Then came the news that the former Vice President is accused of a sexual assault. Hearing the news is a bit like recovering from a hangover, only to trip and fall down a steep flight of stairs.
Fortunately, there's a cinematic aspirin for the pain of these particular broken romances and shattered illusions. Definitely, Maybe, an extraordinarily sweet and perceptive 2008 romantic comedy is perhaps the most articulate movie about the moral disappointments of the Clinton years.
That's not to say it's judgmental. The film follows a young man named Will Hayes who moves to New York to work on the 1992 Clinton campaign and hopes to stay with his college girlfriend, and years later is a divorced father and an unfulfilled advertising executive. His failures are vastly less egregious than Bill Clinton's, but Will is not without ego, selfishness, and immense capacity for confusion.
Even though we know how the political story, at least, ends, it's hard not to feel a little winsome when a pretty, undirected young woman asks Will "you think this guy Bill Clinton is going to make a huge difference?...He's going to do what's already inevitable." Even when their conversation is cut short by Gennifer Flowers' announcement that she had an affair with Clinton, Will ends the night with a toast "To Bill, and his weaknesses."
But Will experiences dual political and romantic disappointment. The night he is supposed to finally meet Clinton, at a fundraiser for a candidate Will is working for, his girlfriend, who he began seeing after she wrote a puff piece about that same candidate, has an attack of journalistic conscience. She writes an expose of the politician, and Will, unable to accept the truth about a second man in whom he's invested so much hope, dumps her, and loses his job.
It's a cruel, selfish act--not as bad as flagrant, humiliating betrayal of marital vows--but an unacceptable one none the less. And coming from a friendly, pretty guy like Ryan Reynolds, it comes across as genuine weakness, an underexplored emotion in movies of all genres these days.
Clinton reaches his low point in impeachment. Will reaches it shortly thereafter, chucking a carton of Chinese food at the television screen. "He can't even define the word 'is,'" Will protests to his friends at a sad birthday party during the hearings. "What happens if they give him one of the hard words, like truth?" His friends, professionally successful and personally satisfied, insist they'd vote for Clinton again. But in this confusing, surprisingly real recreation of young political staffers, Will's moral revelations about the man they helped elect, his certainty and correctness, haven't won him the same kind of contentedness and achievement. There are no rewards, and no causality, for understanding the truth.
Towards the end of the movie, Will sees Clinton running with his security detail in Central Park. The once-elusive man gives his former staffer a distracted thumbs-up. He's an old guy in a sweatsuit, down to size. Will has finally reconciled himself to his expectations of Clinton, and for his own life.
For liberals, and for Will, the Clinton administration was meant to be the return of aggressive legislative liberalism, a template for equal, balanced relationships between husbands and wives. It proved to be neither of those things, and worse, and it appears that our disappointments will never stop coming. But Definitely, Maybe is about living with political and personal disappointment and hurt without being curdled or stunted by them. It's a gentle, honest movie, for vicious, dishonest times.