'Hillary': TV Review | Sundance 2020

More insightful about Hillary the phenomenon than Hillary the person.
3/6/2020

Nanette Burstein revisits the life of one of the most accomplished and polarizing women of her generation in a four-hour Hulu documentary.

America loves encouraging women to reach for more, but it also hates the women who actually do it. That's the unavoidable conclusion to draw from Hillary, Nanette Burstein's four-hour documentary portrait of the former first lady, senator, secretary of state and two-time failed presidential candidate.

Hillary debuted at Sundance several days after the start of Donald Trump's impeachment trial. That unfortunate timing, combined with Burstein's trodding of deeply familiar territory, emphasizes the project's near-total irrelevance. Anyone who cares enough about Hillary Clinton to watch this admiring documentary (set to stream on Hulu on March 6) in the midst of yet another election year will likely find little new information. As an interviewee, Clinton remains guarded, defensive and practiced — though viewers are offered slightly more context for those campaign-weakening faults.

Burstein's last major project was ESPN's The Price of Gold, a 2014 reconsideration of the rivalry between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding that explored the many cultural signifiers that skating judges, corporate sponsors and the public projected, not always accurately, onto the two young Olympians. The Price of Gold benefited enormously from its 20 years of hindsight, and Hillary, too, could have used some more time for rumination and emotional distance (though worries about the subject's advanced age are certainly understandable). The caution with which Clinton responds to her loss to Trump is conspicuous, as is the absence of former chief of staff Huma Abedin, whom the Clintons often referred to as a "second daughter" and whose husband, disgraced politician Anthony Weiner, inadvertently contributed to that loss.

If Burstein strives to dispel any myths, it's those of Clinton's monomaniacal political ambitions and easy path to the Democratic nomination in 2016. The first hour, which focuses almost entirely on Hillary's early decades before Bill's 1992 run for the White House, reveals a brilliant young woman who doesn't seem entirely sure what she wants to do with her life, other than serve the citizenry. From the second hour on, Burstein alternates between a chronological biography and a hyper-focused revisit of the 2016 election, during which former campaign advisers recall the "slog" that an unexpectedly formidable Bernie Sanders made of the primary season, as well as the ways in which Bill's previous transgressions impeded the ability of Hillary, a longtime advocate for women, to attack Trump for his blatant sexism.

With Clinton seated in front of a wall of books and a pair of plush armchairs, Hillary is supposed to feel like an informal conversation. Indeed, I found myself wanting to have a beer with her, if only to get to the woman who once crankily defended her decision to continue her legal career during her time as first lady of Arkansas (instead of being de facto unemployed) with, "I suppose I could've stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession." Today, such jabbing retorts might go viral on the left as well as the right, memorialized by Twitter memes and embroidered on ironic throw pillows sold on Etsy.

Clinton clearly has a sharp tongue, as evidenced by her headline-grabbing, bridge-burning take on Sanders: "Bernie just drove me crazy. … Nobody [in Congress] likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done." She continues: "He was a career politician. He did not work until he was 41, and then he got elected to something. It's all just baloney and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it." But such moments of true revelation are rare. She may not be a born politician, but she's one now, and she's got a legacy to protect.

That wariness makes Hillary more fascinating as a study of a projection screen against which a three-decade culture war has been playing out than that of an individual. One of the documentary's many talking-head journalists notes that, for most of her career, Clinton was viewed as a "scary, bra-burning feminist liberal," not the centrist sellout that many on the extreme left were convinced she was in 2016. Similarly, Clinton's willingness to stay with Bill was a political asset — until it wasn't. (Notably, Burstein makes no note of Bill's earliest and most serious accuser, Juanita Broaddrick.) Clinton's policy expertise to help ordinary Americans is no doubt extensive, and certainly leaps and bounds above that of Trump, but by 2016, she was probably the least connected to the people she'd wanted to help than she'd ever been.

Burstein readily points out these contradictions within Clinton's biography, but does little to contextualize them within the rise of intersectional feminism or even the persistence of misogyny among both men and women. More illuminating is Bill's willful naiveté about sexism all these years later: He seems frustratingly disinclined to admit how much she's hurt his campaigns, and he hers.

Can democratic politics in a vast, alienated country like the U.S. be anything but a series of clashes over which values we project onto candidates and why? Hillary Clinton was the furthest thing from a blank canvas when she ran in 2008 and in 2016, which made the hopes and dreams that we flung against her harder to see reflected back to us. A New Hampshire primary voter asks Clinton whether she would ban fracking the way Sanders vowed to, and the candidate baldly replies that presidents cannot ban fracking. The disappointed look on the voter's face is understandable, yet supremely frustrating. Clinton refuses to promise the impossible, and it turned out 2016 was the year a great swath of the electorate preferred fantasies, no matter how hateful or ludicrous, to reality.

She was damned if she kept her feet planted on the ground, and damned if she reached up to touch the stars.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Special Events)
With: Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, Barack Obama
Director: Nanette Burstein
Premieres Friday, March 6 (Hulu)