We don’t know anything at all about Hillary Clinton.
Sure, she’s among the most photographed, documented, written-about humans still walking planet Earth. But her ubiquity is part of what makes her so hard for the everyday person to reach. Every bit of information about the former first lady, former secretary of state and former presidential candidate is influenced by politics, media and preconceived notions. Hillary isn’t a person; she’s an idea.
Hulu’s new documentary series “Hillary” (streaming Friday, ★★★ out of four) aims to fill the gap between who we think Hillary Clinton is, and who she really is, or at the very least who she says she is. Directed by Nanette Burstein (“Going the Distance”), the four hourlong episodes offer a biography interspersed with the story of the 2016 election, as told from inside the Clinton campaign.
As a piece of documentary filmmaking, “Hillary” is excellent, seamlessly weaving interviews with new and archival footage into a riveting life story. As these episodic documentaries become more common, the urge to include unnecessary footage that ought to have been left on the cutting room floor weighs many down (here’s looking at you, “Making A Murderer 2”). But even at four hours, “Hillary” never feels heavy, at least not from an editing perspective.
But from a political, social and emotional point of view, “Hillary” can hit you hard. Your experience will directly relate to your existing opinion of Hillary, sure, but a relitigation of the 2016 election is exhausting no matter whom you voted for (if you voted at all). It seems clear that the documentary began as a chronicle of the campaign that elected the country’s first woman president, but – like so many things after November 9, 2016 – plans changed. There is even a moment when Hillary admits that had she won, she would have wanted the cameras in her hotel that night. But the way things played out? She and her staff needed the privacy.
It’s to Burstein’s credit that the series isn’t artificially tense and stressful. Interspersing clips of Clinton and President Donald Trump’s debates with earlier episodes in her life – from her childhood to her wedding to the Whitewater scandal to Benghazi – is both illuminating and a welcome relief from rewatching news coverage of four years ago.
Burstein also gave Tonya Harding a more nuanced portrait in the brilliant 2014 ESPN documentary “30 for 30: The Price of Gold” (the inspiration for “I, Tonya”), and her ability to add depth to a story Americans think we all know is apparent once more.
The director is clearly fascinated with her subject, and who wouldn’t be? Clinton’s life has been anything but typical: Her meteoric rise in college, her marriage to Bill, her time as the first lady, senator, secretary of state – her life is so densely full of drama and history that’s she’s like a modern-day Forrest Gump, popping up in every significant event of the last half-century. Except that she was no passive observer, but made and forced change.
The documentary aggressively tries to communicate the sheer breadth of Clinton’s life, and highlight her raw personality. Can it change anyone’s opinion of her? Probably not. The likelihood that any “Hillary haters” will even watch a four-hour documentary about someone they loathe is slim to none, anyway.
But conscious she was preaching to a choir, Burstein aims to find aspects of Clinton that even her most ardent supporters might not have seen before, including the recurring theme that Americans’ perception of her is based on rumors and conspiracy theories . What do we know about her, and what do we assume?
What did I know? I grew up in the 1990s, but the majority of Clinton’s personal biography was new to me. I had wrong assumptions about her that I didn’t even realize. Once, during her 2008 primary run, a woman in my life said she was voting for Hillary even though she resented her for “screwing up health care.” By the documentary’s telling, it’s not as simple as that. But like everyone else, I just believed something I heard.
Clinton can be such a lightning rod, even after her exit from campaigning, that to discuss her is to invite anger. Lots of you will email me after reading this to tell me I’m a hack and a liberal shill and say other terrible things about me, my ability to do my job and my physical appearance just because I wrote about her. It’s nothing compared to the vitriol Clinton has experienced over so many years in public life. If nothing else, this documentary made me look at her as a person, whereas before I saw a symbol, a statue or a convenient scapegoat.
There is no victory at the end of “Hillary.” We were all there: She lost in 2016. Narratively that means the documentary has a weaker ending because stories such as this one usually conclude with a triumphant protagonist. Burstein and Clinton try to put a silver lining on the story by pointing to the number of women who have run for office since. It’s perhaps unfortunate that the series is premiering in the heat of a Democratic primary season in which the two front-runners are, once again, men.
But maybe “Hillary” feels incomplete because its subject’s story is not quite over. She’s adamant that she’s not running for office again, but you never know what impact she could have on the country and the world even without a title. After learning more about her, I wouldn’t count her out.
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