It’s specifically in relation to the Whitewater scandal that plagued Bill Clinton’s first administration, but could be applied to any number of controversies that Hillary addresses: the email server, the Wall Street speech transcripts, the “stayed home and baked cookies” uproar, Benghazi, Monica Lewinsky, and the sexism she faced campaigning against Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
“All these things about us get disproved,” she says. “But the press, and I’m talking about the major organs of the press, not the Breitbarts and the InfoWars and the crazy people, they always bite. And I don’t know why.”
She starts telling an old joke about a guy who’s walking along the edge of a cliff and slips. As he’s falling, he grabs onto a branch. While hanging on for his life, he prays. “God I’ve lived a good life. You know I have. I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do. I was a good husband. I was a good father. I was an honest person. Please Lord, help me!”
A mischievous smile creeps across Clinton’s face as she prepares to land the punchline, adopting the voice of God as he gives the man his response: “You know, there’s just something about you that just pisses me off.”
Directed by Oscar nominee Nanette Burstein (On the Ropes), Hillary premiered Saturday afternoon to a packed house at the Sundance Film Festival, the first of several events that Clinton will participate in at Park City to promote the series ahead of its March 6 premiere on Hulu.
Burstein’s approach is both expansive and intimate, with an exploration of Hillary Rodham’s formative years as president of Young Republicans at Wellesley College and crusading lawyer working for children’s rights and her time supporting Bill Clinton’s political rise, all juxtaposed with her experience in the historic 2016 presidential election.
The series makes good use of a treasure trove of archival personal artifacts and unseen behind-the-scenes campaign footage, as well as freewheeling remarks from the Clinton family, their staff, and friends, grounding the gravitas of the subjects with a pleasant, somewhat surprising casualness from Clinton and her aides.
There’s breaking news, whether it’s an extensive explanation of the email server controversy and her defense of her actions—all delivered without election-season spin—and the Clintons discussing how emotionally volatile their marriage became as they weathered the Monica Lewinsky scandal and she grappled with whether to stay with him.
Her comments about Bernie Sanders have already made headlines, as she expressed her frustration over the ways in which he propagated the narrative that she was corrupt, which she felt was baseless and opportunistic. She also laments that he wasn’t qualified to challenge her in the race.
“Honestly, Bernie drove me crazy,” she says. “He was in the Senate for years. Years! He had one senator support him. Nobody likes him. Nobody wants to work with him. He got nothing done. He was a career politician. He did not work until he was like 41, and then he got elected to something. It was all just baloney, and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it.” Afterwards, she lets out a heavy sigh.
It’s moments like this, or when she shrugs and dismisses the controversy over her Wall Street speeches—“I gave a speech for an hour, and they paid me”—that beg the question of what exactly Hillary is as a non-fiction work.
There’s obvious interest here: a polarizing figure puts her own controversies in context, seizing control of her reputation while examining what contributed to it. But that control itself is curious.
Hillary joins a unique, somewhat bizarre, yet increasingly popular form of storytelling, in which subjects don’t just grant access, but are participants in a project’s marketing and celebration as well. (Case in point: The Netflix documentary about Taylor Swift that also premiered at Sundance, pop star in tow.)
Would Hillary Clinton be appearing at events in support of Hillary had it been more scrutinous of her than this series is? If she hadn’t been able to stop lines of questioning or deeper explorations of topics that made her too uncomfortable?
It’s a work that’s torn between biography and hagiography. It’s the kind of thing you could imagine playing at a convention, considering the rose-colored filter it places on her rise to prominence. But there’s more “truth-telling” than a piece of veiled propaganda like that could ever boast, with Clinton far more candid about hot-button issues than she ever could have been during an election.
Still, all of her defenses, opinions, assessments, and arguments go unquestioned. She can deliver a self-aware deconstruction of what went wrong in her campaign and the mistakes she made in handling certain things, but outside of archival footage, the only one who ever criticizes Hillary Clinton in the documentary is her.
It’s a treatment of a person called “both one of the most admired and one of the most vilified women in American history” by senior campaign policy adviser Jake Sullivan. It is at once complete, controlled, exposed, shielded, provocative, and entirely expected. Perhaps it’s fitting for the most complete chronicling yet of such a polarizing figure to be torn between dichotomies.
Yet even despite its flaws and its inherent bias, it’s incredibly watchable. Four hours fly by. You’re inspired, illuminated, and educated—or, as the 2016 campaign is revisited, triggered, angered, and depressed. But of course the thing is compelling. Few subjects are as compelling as Hillary Clinton. Especially in her to-camera confessionals, she’s as captivating as she’s ever been.
The first question of the documentary asks Clinton if she gets frustrated that after 30 years in public life, people still say they don’t know who she really is, and that she seems inauthentic. “I do,” she says. “What is this about? When people say I’m inauthentic, what you see is what you get. I’m sorry if I’m not brilliantly charismatic on TV. But I am the same person I’ve always been. Going through this gauntlet of unbelievable obstacles, yeah, you get scarred up a little bit.”
Then “Take Back the Power” by the ska punk band The Interrupters plays as a rapidfire slideshow of images of her life plays. It’s a jarring hint at how scattered the approach is here.
Clinton seems most at ease when given the opportunity to chronicle the tick-tock of her own exasperation as scandals she assumed were non-stories exploded and surpassed what she felt was overblown.
She thought the email scandal would be a two-day news story. Colin Powell and other secretaries of state had done the same thing, she explains. “I did it as a matter of convenience. There was no regulation against it. There was nothing against it. Everybody knew I was doing it, because they were all emailing me and I was emailing them. That was hundreds and hundreds of people in the government.”
But it fed into broader narratives of the Clintons being corrupt and hiding things. “It was my job to figure out a way to better handle it, which I never did,” she said.
The documentary finds a way to talk about the misogyny she faced—the “likability” factor—in a way that is intelligent and illuminating without martyrdom or whining per se, though you could argue the proper amount of bitterness: “Honest to God, do you think anybody talked to Bernie Sanders about his goddamn shoes?”
A full half of the series is devoted to her 2016 campaign, and the peek behind the curtain often makes for the most fascinating coverage, making one wonder if a straightforward campaign documentary would have been a stronger approach. You could watch their closed-door strategizing for days. It’s a visceral experience, especially as their helpless bafflement escalates with regards to how to deal with Donald Trump’s blatant lies and the megaphone the media gave them.
Election night footage is devastating. “I was totally emotionally wrecked,” she recalls. “I felt like I let everybody down. I worried that he wouldn’t rise to the occasion. That all the forces he’d unleashed had been rewarded. It made me sick to my stomach. It didn’t make sense.”
Her eyes well with tears as she recounts the experience of delivering her concession speech the morning after the election. “It was really, really tough not crying, not getting a catch in my throat,” she says. “Immediately after I got off the stage and held people who were crying, all the pent-up emotion came spilling out. Finally Bill and I left, and I just collapsed in the back of the van. I was like, what just happened?”
Hillary, then, is an incredibly emotional viewing experience, both in the way it pays proper tribute to her place in history and the accomplishments she earned—it’s hard to fight off tears as she recounts her various achievements as a woman in politics—and in the feelings it dredges up about the 2016 election. No doubt there’s a mission, too, to elicit empathy for the woman who weathered these public scandals she was often demonized for her handling of.
Early in the documentary, Clinton relays a story about a time someone asked her what she wants on her gravestone. Her reply: “She’s not nearly as good or as bad as people say about her.”