For decades, Hillary Rodham Clinton has served as something like a Rorschach test. When people love her, they tend to really love her; when they hate her, they tend to really hate her. She’s been deified, vilified, and everything in-between. Recalling a question she was once asked about what she wanted on her gravestone, Clinton said she replied, “She’s neither as good nor as bad as some people say about her.”
DIRECTOR: Nanette Burstein
Using the lens of the 2016 presidential election, ‘Hillary’ looks back at Hillary Clinton’s life, decades-long career in the public eye, and the many, many contradictions that lay at the center of the public’s perception of her.
All of those contradictions swirl at the very essence of Hillary, Hulu’s four-part docuseries that goes in-depth on Clinton’s life and the impact she’s made throughout her lifetime, often through the lens of her 2016 presidential campaign. Hillary is often messy and imperfect, but above all else, it’s a fascinating and overarching portrait of a flawed and complicated woman who also happens to be one of America’s most polarizing political figures.
Hillary was originally envisioned as a documentary on Clinton’s second campaign, documenting just about every major development along the way. But then she lost the general election, and so Hillary zooms outside of 2016 to examine the touchstones of her life and the parallels between them and her campaign. It includes interviews with Clinton herself—at the Sundance Film Festival, she said that she sat down for “around 35 hours, seven days of interviewing”—along with Bill Clinton, friends and classmates, much of her staff, colleagues, and some of the reporters who spent part of their careers reporting on her.
The parallels between Clinton’s career and the 2016 election don’t always work, but other times, it’s almost prescient how little has changed on how society perceives women in and out of the public eye as well as in politics. Early on, Clinton recalls running for student council president in high school and lost. The boy who won then asked her to do all of the work for him (which she did), giving her a swift lesson about how the world worked. In the second episode, she noted that during her 2016 presidential campaign, she calculated that she spent 25 days getting her hair and makeup done altogether, something that her rivals didn’t have to worry about anywhere near as much.
Clinton is largely clear-eyed throughout Hillary. She cracks jokes at her own expense, points out some of what went wrong during her campaign, and even fondly remembering aspects of a very storied life. As she and Kate McKinnon rehearse for Clinton’s Saturday Night Live cameo, they crack up over Clinton’s Donald Trump impression. There’s an air of ease and silliness that we’re often not privy to, especially as her campaign starts to celebrate the victories they do get.
Hillary emphasizes just how monumental Clinton was as a figure during her years in the public eye, and it’s easy to see how she became so admired. But she doesn’t hide her exasperation over how she was treated over the years or over how some of the scandals in her life played out. Clinton has been criticized for being too cold and calculating as well as being too emotional. Her ambitions were mocked and scrutinized, but whenever she stepped back to take a more traditional role, she was deemed to be inauthentic. When Bill Clinton was president, Hillary was seen as being too progressive, but by the time she ran for president, she was the centrist candidate.
The docuseries is full of those hypocrisies and sexist contradictions, often delivered courtesy of an unintentional sea of reporters and talking heads who shaped much of the conversation around Clinton and have since been forced out over how they treated women on and off the air. (Chris Matthews was only the most recent to have stepped down.) It’s the idea that Clinton is too much and not enough, the big question is whether she’s likable or electable enough over her policies, and nothing she can say or do will change that. Some of the accusations she faced decades ago still haunt her no matter how many times they’ve been disproven, and you can see just based on what she faced why she’s wary of the press.
Sometimes, Hillary is unfocused all over the place. One episode will go through decades of Clinton’s life while others will cover only a few years; other episodes spend a good chunk delving into 2016 before looking back at the past. It’s not until the final few minutes of the docuseries that we really look into the political uprising that grew to prominence during the 2016 campaign and in the wake of Clinton’s loss, topics that could easily fuel another documentary altogether.
It might not be the docuseries you wanted from Clinton—especially if it didn’t cover a certain topic you were hoping—and there is enough rehashing of the 2016 election that, even as we’re in the midst of the 2020 election, could lead to a ton of emotional whiplash.
In Hillary’s very first moments, Burstein tells Clinton off-camera that “we want to hear your story, unvarnished, beginning to end.” That’s not to say that Hillary is a complete portrait. Clocking in at just over four hours, there’s almost no way that Hillary can cover absolutely everything. But it’s a comprehensive portrait, one that doesn’t attempt to hide every single flaw. And in effect, it becomes a much more interesting one to view.
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