As both Hillary Clinton and the team behind “Hillary” know very well, it’s nigh impossible at this point for someone to approach her with total objectivity. Throughout her life, Clinton has been a uniquely polarizing figure both in her own right and because of her marriage to former President Bill Clinton, himself a perpetual lightning rod of controversy. Clinton has distinguished herself as a sharp thinker, a powerful politician and a woman who’s responded to the fact of extraordinarily public life by doubling down on her beliefs and blunt way of appraising nonsense when she sees it. Depending on whom you ask, Clinton is a heroic trailblazer, a ruthless neocon, a feminist icon or an embodiment of everything wrong with politics. Dissecting and portraying the truth of her life is a mammoth task — and one that “Hillary,” despite its best and most ambitious intentions, struggles to pull off.
The new docu-series from Hulu and director Nanette Burstein, which premiered in its entirety at Sundance on Jan. 26, tries to convey the sweeping arc of Clinton’s personal story and how it intersects with some of the country’s most formative historical moments. It includes extensive interviews with Clinton, her staff, her old classmates and journalists who have followed her career, all threaded through with archival footage of Clinton as a student, lawyer, first lady and politician. Buzziest of all, Burstein got exclusive access to Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, which, over the course of the series, we get to watch crash and burn all over again as her team struggles to adjust to the unprecedented challenge of running against first Bernie Sanders, then Donald Trump. (That Clinton and the docu-series alike position Sanders and Trump as equally daunting opponents is perhaps one of the most unintentionally revealing aspects of “Hillary” overall.)
In the interviews, Clinton is simultaneously forthright and guarded, warm and wary. She insists that she’s “an idealist and an optimist” who in the next breath emphasizes the importance of being “willing to work in the system.” She’s extremely aware of her singular place in history and the frenzy that follows her every move, and vacillates between blaming the press and blaming herself for stoking it, accidentally or otherwise. She hopes, as she says in the first episode, that people might come away with the knowledge that she is “neither as good nor as bad as people said.” The docu-series itself treads the line between outright adulation and overt disdain carefully — at first. By the end, it frames Clinton as the gate-crashing spark that set the #Resistance on fire after Trump’s election. As with everything regarding Hillary Clinton, this framing might ring true for some while feeling offensively false to others. Burstein’s “Hillary” is fascinated by this duality, but nonetheless has trouble providing a three-dimensional explanation of it.
One of the biggest problems with “Hillary” is that it’s broken up into four episodes that, despite overtures to corresponding themes between Clinton’s past and present, rarely feel like episodes unto themselves. (It would honestly be unsurprising to learn that Burstein finalized an overall cut before chopping it into four hourlong segments in order to fit the TV brief — that’s how scattered its organization feels.) With so much material to work with, and the additional burden of wanting to shed new light on the 2016 election and Clinton’s heretofore undisclosed feelings on it, “Hillary” bounces between timelines under the guise of drawing parallels that only rarely align.
The closest it comes to working is in the third episode (“The Hardest Decision”), which flashes between Trump attacking Bill Clinton’s infidelity to deflect from the “Access Hollywood” tape and how the Clintons worked through Bill’s lying about Monica Lewinsky and the impeachment scandal. (Bill, in expressing regret that Lewinsky’s life has been “unfairly” defined by this moment, is perhaps as candid as he’s ever been on the subject; Hillary, in admitting it was difficult to keep the family together but without explicitly mentioning Lewinsky at all, is typically careful with her words.) Not only do these incidents link up thematically, but this episode doesn’t jump between 2016 and the past nearly as much as the others, instead homing in on a turning point that demands room and attention. Then comes the final episode (“Be Our Champion, Go Away”), which speeds through her first senatorial run, her 2008 presidential campaign and her ascendance to secretary of state within half an hour. Each of these are is a fascinating chapter of Clinton’s career with events that foreshadow the 2016 campaign. All deserve more than the CliffsNotes version “Hillary” gives us in its race to the finish line.
As a whole, “Hillary” is a fittingly messy, compelling portrait of an equally messy, compelling person with some moments that will no doubt provide even more fodder for the endless speculation about her private thoughts and motivations. But it could have been so much more, perhaps by bifurcating itself into two documentaries: one on the life of Hillary Clinton (the woman, the myth, the legend) and one specifically on the optimism and ultimate horror of her 2016 campaign. As a mashup of all the above, “Hillary” quickly becomes far more overwhelming than enlightening.
“Hillary” premieres March 6 on Hulu. 60 mins. (4 episodes; all reviewed.)