Film & Television

“Hillary’: Love Her, Hate Her, Know Her Better

Part one, “The Golden Girl,” follows Clinton from her childhood in the Chicago suburbs, the highly accomplished daughter of a middle-class Republican family. “The worst thing I could say to my father,” she recalls, “was that I was going to marry a Democrat.” She attended Wellesley, choosing the all-women’s college as her own feminist principles were developing. There, she became the first student to deliver a commencement speech. She followed Senator Edward Brooke, whose comments she found condescending, and she extemporaneously altered her remarks accordingly. She received a seven-minute standing ovation and was featured in Life magazine. She went to Yale Law School, where she focused on family law, and where she famously met a fellow student named Bill Clinton.

Part two, “Becoming a Lady,” focuses on Clinton’s years in Arkansas. There, she continued her legal career while supporting her husband’s political ambitions. He was elected state attorney general after a failed congressional bid, and then ran successfully for governor. When her husband was defeated for a second term, Clinton added his name to hers (until then, she had kept her maiden name, raising eyebrows and perhaps suppressing votes), left her job as a full partner at the Rose Law Firm, and cultivated a more conventional “first lady” appearance. The documentary implies, convincingly, that these changes helped secure her husband’s reelection two years later.

Part three, “The Hardest Decision,” follows the Clintons to Washington and examines not only the optimism they conveyed as the nation’s first baby boomers in the White House, but also the many obstacles and pitfalls they had to navigate — from threats from the DNC establishment when they decided to run, to revelations about Bill’s long-time affair with Gennifer Flowers, to Clinton’s slip of the tongue in an interview and the resulting “cookiegate,” to the most difficult period of Bill’s presidency and the Clintons’ marriage: Monica Lewinsky and impeachment.

Part four, “Be Our Champion, Go Away,” wraps up the series with a close look at Clinton’s own political career, from New York senator, to secretary of state, to presidential candidate. Interviews with friends, peers, and journalists highlight her accomplishments, her work effort, and the near constant attacks she endured at every step along the way. She is forthright and humble about her eventual defeat, expressing her hope — as she did in her concession speech — that she made the future a bit easier for the next women who attempt to shatter the Oval Office’s thickest of glass ceilings.

Director Burstein, who is described as a “political junkie” herself, is an Oscar-nominated documentarian. Her past projects include On the Ropes (1999); The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002); American Teen (2008); and Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee (2016). She met with Clinton early in 2018 and explained that she wanted to make the documentary broader than a study of the 2016 election. She was particularly interested in exploring how the public’s love/hate relationship with Clinton relates to gender. She asked for unprecedented access to both Clintons, and found them surprisingly cooperative.

“The Clintons have a reputation for being controlling,” she explains to The Hollywood Reporter, “but from the moment we met Hillary, we saw zero of it.”

In keeping with its subject, the documentary, which is available this month on Hulu, has already sparked controversy. When it was screened at Sundance in January, Clinton’s comments about former opponent Bernie Sanders made headlines. “Honestly, Bernie just drives me crazy,” she says. “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.” It’s easy to forget with the current buzz about Sanders’s “Medicare for All,” and Trump’s attacks on the Affordable Care Act, that it was Clinton, as first lady, who drafted a comprehensive precursor to healthcare reform back in 1994. (In hindsight, she now feels that her chairmanship of that effort led to its defeat.)

Burstein, whose editorial task must have seemed nearly insurmountable, with more than 2,000 hours of campaign footage and 35 hours of interviews with Clinton, achieves her goal of integrating her subject’s story with that of the changing role of American women. Recalling a 2016 debate during which Trump physically intimidated her, Clinton explains that she couldn’t risk confronting him and being labeled “an angry woman.” Today, she admits, that might be different, thanks to the “Me Too” movement.

Perhaps the most emotionally open portion of Hillary takes place when her husband’s affair with White House intern Lewinsky is addressed. Not only does that event overshadow Bill’s presidency to this day, but it was understandably a difficult and painful passage in the Clinton marriage. Bill speaks openly about it, expressing genuine admiration for his wife. “I was so grateful that she thought we still had enough to stick it out. God knows the burden she’s paid for that.” His observation is underscored by the comments from a focus group. Participants were critical of Clinton for staying with Bill. But, at the same time (and this was during her run for president), they wished Bill were on the ticket instead of her. In other words, while he was the guilty party, she was the one they held accountable.

In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Clinton expresses her personal goals for the documentary, “I really hope young people watch it. Especially young women because I want young women to have some idea of the arc of what we’ve all gone through over the past 50, 60 years because they have to save [women’s rights]. They have to defend them against constant attacks. Some of those attacks are subtle, but some of them are pretty blatant. I’d also love for young men to watch it and go, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that. My God, they burned her in effigy because she wanted universal health care? Whoa.’ I’d love for some of that to penetrate so that people understand that making change is hard and it doesn’t happen overnight with a snap of the finger. I’d love for that to spark a conversation that could really inform how people think about politics and tough policies and maybe even this election.”

Hillary is available on the streaming service Hulu. You can find information about their free trial at hulu.com.

 

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