THE WASHINGTON POST – Hillary is a salvage operation, but not of the reputation of the person who won the 2016 popular vote by roughly three million; she doesn’t need any rescuing. Instead, it repurposes some great film footage that begs to be seen, more than 2,000 hours of inside access to the campaign. It was clearly intended to provide the meat of a triumphant documentary about the moment America finally elected its first female president.
Now, of course, it’s spliced into a movie about something else. Filmmaker Nanette Burstein (whose documentary work includes The Kid Stays in the Picture) has taken that footage and – with a punk-rock attitude and some refreshingly honest new interviews – shaped it into a rather sleek and highly watchable version of the joys and anguish of being Hillary Rodham Clinton, culminating in her electoral loss to Donald Trump.
What emerges is an artfully structured personal history of modern feminism, told in the context of a country and a culture still grappling with a daunting degree of gender bias. Roll your eyes all you want (Clinton does plenty of that, sitting through a compulsory rewind of her life story), but Hillary has many moments of clearheaded connecting of an essential series of sociopolitical dots. In seven decades of striving, Clinton failed to win a game that was often rigged against her, often based on the fickle definitions of likability and personality.
She survived attacks from critics whose bile increased to the point that they literally demonised her. She rose above focus-group opinions that somehow blamed her for her husband’s issues. In a 600-day campaign, she estimates that she cumulatively spent 25 of those days sitting for hairstyling and makeup. “Smile more,” said a middle-aged goateed man in a baseball hat, as candidate Clinton relentlessly shakes hands on the trail, while smiling as much as a human’s face muscles will allow. Boiled down, this is a film about that.
Whatever fresh news exists within this four-part documentary – streaming in its entirety (four hours and 17 minutes) on Hulu – is already out there, ever since Clinton and Burstein made the rounds this winter at both the Television Critics Association’s media tour and the Sundance Film Festival.
If you’re only interested in the juicy bits, I mainly see just two. The first is Clinton’s candid and emphatic dissing (in Part 2) of Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., her rival for the 2016 Democratic nomination – a leading critic of her perceived chumminess with Wall Street and a force to be reckoned with in this year’s race.
“Honestly, Bernie just drove me crazy,” she said. “He was in Congress for years. Years. He had one senator support him. 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 got elected to something. It was all just baloney and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it.” OK, then.
Another notable moment comes in Part 3, where a viewer would likely assume that there’s nothing left to say, as both Clinton and her husband, Bill, reflect on the lasting damage of his extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky in the mid-1990s, while he was president. Interviewed about this separately, the couple fall back on many of the things they’ve said before (Bill: “It was awful, what I did”; Hillary: “I was so angry”), but their faces and mannerisms, even now, seem to say what words cannot.
His hands and voice still tremble as he explains his “personal baggage” and the level of counseling it took for him to truly see himself. Her eyes fix on a faraway corner as she explains her reaction, her decisions, her defense of him: As a talented young attorney who had worked on the impeachment hearings of another president – Richard Nixon – she knew Bill’s transgressions were not impeachable offenses.
The other reason? The love story that still exists in there, somehow? Hillary can offer no more than what should seem plain: She stayed because she decided to stay. (“I was so grateful that she thought we had enough to stick it out,” Bill said. “God knows the burden she paid for that.”)
Burstein is not here simply to commiserate or adulate, though the film necessarily serves measures of both. She thoughtfully and concisely weaves the backstage campaign efforts with Clinton’s biography – starting with the overachieving Methodist teen in Illinois, who accepts losing the student council presidency to a popular boy by dutifully doing all the student council work for him; the galvanizing Wellesley student who follows a Republican senator’s patronizing commencement address with her own stirring message of liberation. One can’t help but think of what might have been if she’d never met what’s-his-name and followed him to Little Rock.
That she did took a sort of courage and stamina that defies explanation, though Burstein gets a raft of Clinton’s past and current friends and associates to take turns at cracking the mystique. Many of them – Jennifer Palmieri, Lisa Caputo, Paul Begala – are eloquent, forthcoming, sympathetic and even archly funny about this woman they know and love. Clinton herself is relaxed, open and, well, just the sort of person pollsters and pundits kept saying she should be. Anyone who can’t stand Clinton – and never will – won’t make it past the first hour.
Nothing comes up that cannot be explained, usually with the truth that’s always been out there: Whitewater, Vince Foster, Benghazi, But-Her-Emails. Burstein deserves a prize for narrative economy, recounting these events (many of which still drag on) with brief but brutal efficiency, reducing them to their factual essence and calling up as many news clips as it takes to show how poorly Clinton fared in the court of public opinion.
Revisiting the 2016 outcome is painful for everyone involved – and the candidate more than accepts her share of the blame for the loss. But in Clinton’s defeat, Burstein finds a blossoming field of empowerment, outrage and emerging leadership. On this side of the #MeToo movement, it’s a more-than- suitable epilogue; it’s a step up to a rightful place in history. The woman that America never seemed to like enough was correct all along: It wasn’t really about her.