TONIGHT on HBO, it's Monica the Infomercial — a strangely compelling, confused performance in which Monica Lewinsky sits on stage, fields mostly puffball questions from an audience of students and tries to sell us her story. She's not asking for money (HBO gave her that), but for sympathy.
She hangs her head and lets her hair fall over her face like an adolescent. She is at various times feisty, witty, vapid and unhinged. At one point she sobs so much that she walks off stage to compose herself, then returns with a clever line: "I wish I had a makeup person every time I cried." She makes you wonder how much of her wounded-woman persona is real and how much is calculated. But most of all she makes you realize how distant the Clinton impeachment crisis now seems.
"Monica in Black and White," part of HBO's Sunday-night documentary series, "America Undercover," is a pseudo-arty film but a fascinating document. This cynical, commercial enterprise adds little to our knowledge of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandals but reveals a great deal about the headache- inducing circus television news became then, and about how quickly current events recede into history.
Ms. Lewinsky brought the project to HBO, which hired Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the team that produced and directed "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," another unlikely but absorbing film about a woman seeking to upgrade her public image, Tammy Faye Bakker. They wrote to professors at several New York colleges, inviting law students and graduate students in American history and women's studies to attend question-and-answer sessions held over three days last April at Cooper Union.
There, sitting casually on the edge of the stage in a black pantsuit, Ms. Lewinsky tries to project the image of a well-adjusted, forward-looking person, who was treated badly by Bill Clinton, Linda Tripp and the media. She actually projects the image of an emotionally distraught person trapped by her past, who was treated badly by Bill Clinton, Linda Tripp and the media.
Ten hours of tape was pared down to this 1-hour-35- minute film, whose arch title refers to the flattering black-and-white photography. Along with intense close- ups, the use of black and white creates a warm, intimate look. Scattered among these soft images, in quick-cut sequences that mirror the chaos of the time, are harsh color news clips that play like scenes from an old movie (there's Monica besieged by reporters! there's Bill Clinton wagging his finger and denying everything!). And there are snippets of the recordings Linda Tripp secretly made of her phone conversations with Ms. Lewinsky.
"Monica in Black and White" shrewdly tries to get the ground rules out of the way first, though some crucial information is missing. Text on screen says Ms. Lewinsky was paid to make the film, but it doesn't say that HBO and Ms. Lewinsky are contractually forbidden to discuss the amount.
She says the audience can ask her anything, but she may refuse to answer; then we are given no clue about what she might have balked at. In a recent interview, Mr. Fenton and Mr. Barbato said she had answered every question, and added that she had no control over the final cut of the documentary. It is awfully kind to her anyway.
When she is asked why she is doing the show, she blathers about wanting to "clear up misconceptions."
Like the one about the thong. "It has been reported that I flashed my thong," she says. "It was nothing of the sort. It was a very small gesture that was done in a way that looked like it could have been an accident. . . . There were 20 other people in that room and no one else noticed it." Oh, so she discreetly flashed her thong.
At first, she hadn't planned to save the blue dress with its famous incriminating stain, she says. She has said that before; here she adds that she saved it "the same way people will cherish the sweaty T-shirt from a rock star." Her attitude plays to this carefully selected audience, near her age (she is now 28), a generation less judgmental than its parents' might be.
A few rude and skeptical questions are tossed in, a ploy to make the film seem more balanced. Faced with a hostile, lewd question about how it feels to be the "queen" of oral sex, Ms. Lewinsky pauses for a long time (staying calm as she has surely been advised to do), then chooses to ignore the questioner's tone. "It's hurtful and it's insulting" to be turned into a sex joke, she says, reframing the question as deftly, if not as quickly, as a politician on "Meet the Press."
Still, there's too much here that panders to Ms. Lewinsky's image-reconstruction project. When a middle-aged man says he's disgusted at being part of this HBO-orchestrated spin, she asks, "Why did you come here tonight, sir?" Then a young woman stands and tells her, "I support you 100 percent and, like, I don't think anyone should judge you."
It doesn't seem likely that Ms. Lewinsky, who has heard every possible question, would come through with such empty answers and emotional displays unless they were part of an act. But why would she put together an act so likely to backfire on her? At a news conference in January, faced with tough questions from television reporters, she wailed to the HBO producer Sheila Nevins, "You told me they'd be nice." Publicity from that event helped the film more than it did Ms. Lewinsky's reputation. She comes across as someone who is trying hard to invent a new image but isn't very good at it.
She becomes far more sympathetic when talking about a subject that, until last year, she was forbidden to discuss under the terms of her immunity agreement with prosecutors: what happened when Ms. Tripp led her into an ambush at a shopping mall, in which F.B.I. agents picked her up and questioned her in a hotel room for hours. "I was hysterical and I cried and I wanted to die," she tells the audience. She says the agents threatened her with jail and told her that if she called a lawyer, "you won't be able to help yourself as much."
"I sit here and it still doesn't seem real anymore sometimes," she says, adding, in a tone of amazement, "Ken Starr said nothing happened in that room and I was treated with respect and dignity." (A voice shouts from the audience, "We're on your side, Monica!" )
When the agents took her to dinner in the mall, she went into a restroom and tried to call Betty Currie, the president's secretary, to warn him that the F.B.I. knew about the affair. She says he was scheduled to give a deposition in Paula Jones's sexual harassment lawsuit the next day, and "I assumed he was going to go in and deny the relationship." That's not much of a bombshell now, but it's easy to imagine the hysteria and moral outrage her assumption that the President would lie might have set off if she had revealed it at the time. The news clips are a reminder of how rabid television was, from top to bottom.
How did we ever live through that assault of screaming, hectoring commentators? Here is Sam Donaldson sanctimoniously ranting that the White House has been "sullied." Here are all those former prosecutors yelling on "Rivera Live" (Victoria Toensing, Marcia Clark and others whose names sound like those of has-been actresses). On "Politically Incorrect," Ms. Lewinsky's character is defended by Jackie Collins and assailed by Michael Moore, something you wouldn't wish on anyone except your worst enemy.
And here is Linda Tripp, seen with her old face and her new, surgically enhanced face (not what most people mean when they call her two-faced). You have to go back to Dracula, also known for feeding off others, to find so consistently hissable a screen villain. She remains that, even though a February 1999 "Today" show interview seems like an echo from a distant time. "It was worth it to me to do what I considered to be my patriotic duty," she says, in a comment that seems more bizarre than ever now that "patriotic" has an entirely different ring. The sense of having lived through some era of insanity probably would have crept in even if the Sept. 11 attacks had never happened, though. Ms. Lewinsky's celebrity was already beginning to evaporate by then.
THIS film may bring her to center stage for another moment, but it is not likely to change anyone's mind much. To me, she was always the most sympathetic character in the national soap opera. She may have been a disaster in romance, and she had even worse judgment in best friends, but she wasn't the one who went public with her story or splashed the intimate details of her life across the news.
Since then, of course, she has appeared on "Saturday Night Live," posed cloaked in an American flag for Vanity Fair, made diet ads for Jenny Craig and written an autobiography with Princess Diana's biographer, Andrew Morton. She was interviewed by Barbara Walters in prime time and more recently stopped by Ms. Walters's daytime show, "The View," to plug her line of handbags. With every public relations gambit she becomes less sympathetic.
But despite the skepticism this publicity-seeking film deserves, it ends with an affecting moment. Ms. Lewinsky is asked, "How are you doing?" — a flattering, innocuous question. Her touched, tearful reaction is the response of someone who feels so emotionally worn down that any small sign of sympathy or kindness seems amazing. That response seems genuine and sad. No matter how much time passes, it is impossible to see Monica in black and white; there is just opinion on our side and public display on hers.