PARK CITY – The first thing you need to know about “Hillary,” Nanette Burstein’s new documentary series about Hillary Clinton, is that it would be surprising if it changed your opinion about a public figure who one of the most admired and vilified women in the world. Whether you were one of the 65.8 million people who voted for her in the 2016 election or a member of the other camp who believed the numerous charges made against her (all debunked by the way), there is no smoking gun or unexpected revelation in this production. Instead, what “Hillary” does best is cast a rich portrait of one of the most influential women of the past 50 years. A portrait of a “radical feminist” who truly never abandoned the cause (well, maybe that’s a surprise).
Clocking in at 253 minutes, “Hillary” premiered as a complete film at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival with a short intermission and you can easily argue it’s simply not long enough to chronicle her life adequately. That being said the film is divided into four sections with the 2016 election as a unifying thread throughout the narrative.
Burstein was spurred to direct the project when she learned Clinton had access to hundreds of hours of unseen footage recorded during the entirety of the campaign. And anyone dismissing the significance of this footage is frightfully naive. Not only do you witness Clinton’s immediate reaction with her staff following the first presidential debate with Donald Trump, you watch as members of her team stress over early primary state results and debate the best way to deal with all sorts of adversities. And, yes, there is even an awkward moment backstage before a primary debate with her nemesis (this writer’s word, not hers), Bernie Sanders. This is not a project that just uses old news footage and sit-down interviews to fashion a portrait of a notable figure. There is never-before-seen history here and it is as joyous as it is painful.
The elephant in the room is that Hillary’s upbringing, collegiate history and romance with Bill Clinton have been discussed many times before (including in materials for each of their campaigns). What Burstein focuses on the most are aspects of Hillary’s education that she downplayed when it suited her over the years. Speaking to her fellow classmates at both Wesleyan University and Yale Law School, they make no qualms about the fact that at the time Hillary was inherently feminist. And while she might not have worn that label when it became politically detrimental, her friends and peers saw those ideals and values in her policies from her time as First Lady to her two presidential campaigns. She’s been a radical all along. You just had to look closely enough.
Despite her popularity as a Senator and Secretary of State, by the 2016 presidential election, she was burdened by a reputation as being untrustworthy and corrupt. Burstein goes to great lengths to try and determine what events in her life led to this personification by speaking not only to Clinton herself, but her husband, former campaign manager Robby Mook, chair John Podesta, communications director Jennifer Palmieri and even former president Barack Obama, among others. Mostly though, it is Clinton herself reflecting on her choices. She often seems to want to position her regrets (mostly with the media) as few and far between but it becomes inherently obvious many still haunt her to this day.
Burstein also pretty much covers every hot button subject you can imagine in Hillary’s lifetime. Benghazi, Whitewater, her failed Health Care initiative as First Lady, “Super Predators,” the E-mail server controversy and her husband’s infidelities. Some of them deserve even more dissecting, but even another full hour wouldn’t have sufficiently reflected on her entire career (you do wish more of her tenure as a Senator and Secretary of State were explored, however).
Hillary has a reputation for being guarded but she does reflect about discovering the truth regarding the Monica Lewinsky affair. That being said, you can tell it’s the one subject she truly doesn’t want to discuss. Even more revelatory are Bill Clinton’s extended answers on the incident that almost destroyed his presidency and their marriage. Looking increasingly frailer than his 73-years, he is brutally honest about his mistakes and how he broke the news to both Hillary and their daughter Chelsea after he had insisted for months the reports about the affair weren’t true. Speaking to other people in Hillary’s sphere, it becomes clear that her decision to stay with her husband shockingly became an issue with “highly successful” women voters in her presidential runs. Over her career, Hillary became a polarizing figure for the public to project their greatest hopes and biggest fears upon. And the documentary suggests that to this day there are many women who disliked Hillary because of their own experiences with marital infidelity.
The last chapter of the documentary focuses almost entirely on Hillary’s battle for the White House. There are many tearful and painful recollections from her staff and Hillary’s own account of the last month of the campaign shows how frustrated she still is over what occurred three years ago. Recalling election day itself was hard for many of the interview subjects. In fact, the events of the last election may still be fresh in the minds of many Americans, but with this film, Burstein has crafted a historical document meant for generations to come. But for now? The wounds are still a bit raw.
After posting on social media my attendance at the premiere, a friend made sure to let me know he was still mad at Hillary for what she said about Bernie. She’d “done him wrong.” Of course, he was responding to a quote from Hillary that was circulated before the doc series premiered. A quote out of context that makes more sense in context. But as Burstein learned, no matter what Hillary does, she’ll always generate this sort of passionate response. Even when her political days are seemingly over. [B+]