In close-up, Hillary Clinton is enduring hair and makeup. She breathes deep through her nose, summoning reserves of patience, as two people go at her with brushes, lipstick, eyeliner. From behind the camera, director Nanette Burstein, best known for the delightful Robert Evans documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture, observes that this must be an ordeal. Acknowledging what Naomi Wolf long ago, in The Beauty Myth, called “the third shift,” Clinton chuckles: “It’s a burden, believe me.” She calculates that she lost 25 entire days this way over the course of her 2016 presidential campaign—a striking number, when you consider that for Hillary, the four-hour-plus Hulu documentary in which this scene appears, she only had to give Burstein around 35 hours. None of the men she ran against, Clinton notes, was required to make such sacrifices for his looks.
Right on cue, at that observation, the shambling, tousle-haired democratic socialist Bernie Sanders appears on-screen, seeking Clinton’s advice on his jacket backstage before a Democratic primary event. “You could start buttoned,” she suggests. “Then, when you get wound up, you can unbutton.” If you focus on Clinton’s face, this second scene could almost be a rerun of the first: As the two opponents stand around in awkward silence, her smile freezes, her eyes roam around as if desperate to avoid his, she lets out a sigh, and her whole frame registers barely repressed loathing.
It’s odd, as she and Burstein remark earlier in the documentary, that so many voters apparently feel they still don’t know the real Hillary. For all the frivolous press coverage suggesting she didn’t show enough emotion, and all the right-wing fulminating over her supposed deviousness, it seems her talent for dissembling has been greatly exaggerated. “Honestly, Bernie just drove me crazy,” Clinton confirms to the camera. “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 didn’t 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.”
Sanders wasn’t asked to participate in the documentary, which weaves together behind-the-scenes campaign footage; new interviews with the Clintons, their friends, and staffers; and archival material from Hillary’s suburban Illinois childhood, her time at law school, in Arkansas, the White House, and her years as New York senator and as secretary of state. Very few non-Clinton allies are interviewed—reporters like Peter Baker offer about as unfriendly a take as you get. (According to The Hollywood Reporter, Burstein did approach Newt Gingrich, who said: “I’d rather stick needles in my eyes.”) The result is the most sympathetic portrait Clinton could have asked for.
Whether that portrait can sway anyone is another matter: It’s hard to imagine a potential viewer who hasn’t already made up their mind about Hillary Clinton one way or the other, which means that the film has a strange, slippery effect. Instead of building a persuasive case for its subject, it serves as a sort of Rorschach blot, in which you’ll probably see confirmation of whatever theory about her and the 2016 election you espouse.
In Hillary, we see her as an adorable kid on a tricycle, and as the precocious teen who declared—“the worst thing I could think of saying to my father”—that when she grew up she was going to marry a Democrat. We learn how she lost her race for student council president to a boy who promptly turned around and offered to let her do all the actual work. (She said OK.) We hear her ad-lib her famously idealistic Wellesley commencement address, in which she contends that politics should be the art of “making what appears to be impossible possible.” Her relationship with Bill, so often caricatured as a House of Cards–style pact between ruthless opportunists, here comes across as a genuine love story—the smallest glances and gestures between them convey how essential these two are to each other.
Then there’s her kindness to friends at difficult moments. We’re told that when her aide Huma Abedin is distraught, having realized it’s the confiscated laptop of her husband, Anthony Weiner, that has sparked the eleventh-hour reopening of the FBI’s investigation into the Clinton emails, Hillary is quick to console her and orders ice cream sundaes for everyone on the campaign plane. (Her circle of compassion is limited, of course: Bill Clinton here expresses regret about the way Monica Lewinsky was attacked and the effect it had on her life for years afterward, something Hillary still conspicuously does not.) She’s even capable of rueful laughter over her political weaknesses: Her adviser Philippe Reines describes excitably reporting a favorable poll, “Only 5 percent say they hate you, woo-hoo!” and remembers her response: “You realize that’s still 25 million people.”
The film’s crucial play for sympathy is its reminder of how unrelenting, creative, and multidirectional the assaults on Clinton have been—demonized as an “ultra-feminist,” condemned for standing by her cheating husband, burned in effigy in Kentucky. These experiences may help explain Clinton’s allergy to self-questioning and the mood of aggrieved entitlement that suffuses her and her team. “I’m the most investigated innocent person in America,” she says. When Burstein asks her whether she’d had to apologize—for the 1994 crime bill and her infamous speech about “superpredators”—during the 2016 campaign, her impatience is palpable: “I don’t remember. I was always saying, trying to explain things that people didn’t want to hear. So.”
Often, the film shares Clinton’s own trouble distinguishing between baseless prejudice and substantive critique. (Much of the latter is simply left out: For instance, if the Clinton Foundation and its donors receive any scrutiny, I missed it.) Campaign adviser Jake Sullivan declares that Bernie Sanders went negative during the primary, calling Clinton “corrupt” every single day. This echoes her characterization, in the
2016 debates, of Sanders’s comments on her Wall Street relationships as “a very artful smear.” What’s wrong with being overpaid to give a speech at Goldman Sachs, she asks here, when she could have done so many more compromising things—board appointments, lobbying gigs—to cash in on having been secretary of state? Her team’s concession that they might have been naïve about the “optics” in the Goldman Sachs matter displays the same cluelessness. Sanders wasn’t attacking Clinton as some exceptional criminal element—he portrayed the whole corporate-friendly manner in which mainstream American politics runs as disreputable.
The impulse to cry unfairness is evergreen among Clinton stalwarts—though she’s received as much professional success as anyone could reasonably deserve. It’s as if the presidency were a gold star that her much-vaunted managerial competence and strategic smarts should have earned her. “It’s no surprise to me that the first break in the barrier of white male presidents was a black male,” adviser Cheryl Mills says at one point, “because he’s still what we’re used to seeing: Men lead, men are strong, and men champion the issues for this country.” This suggestion that racism is a less daunting force than misogyny is hard to swallow. That’s not to downplay the misogyny Clinton had to contend with. It’s a measure of misogyny’s powerful grip that it should at this late date be possible to paint a woman’s candidacy as inherently revolutionary.
The documentary inhabits a confusing genre. In a sense, it’s framed as tragedy: the story of a gifted woman whose pioneering efforts are continually used against her and eventually help scotch her dearest wish. It can also be read as a larger tragedy of liberal centrism, of white feminism itself, brought low by its own contradictions, incapable of comprehending what it is that people don’t like about its self-serving logic.
Yet the film can’t quite bear to understand itself in that downbeat way, and tacks on a happy ending. In the closing minutes, after the crushing defeat of 2016, comes a note of hope. Hillary, proud pragmatist and incrementalist, is reframed as transformational, credited for the flood of progressive women who won office after her, her loss “the historic turning point that lit the fuse.” “I don’t know that we’re ever ready for the person who has to blaze the trail,” Mills muses. “We’re ready for the people who come after them because somebody else has created enough space for them to not have to shrink to fit. Instead, there’s plenty of room for them to walk in all their glory. And for her, she was at the tip of the spear.” It’s difficult to convey how ludicrous this sounds in context. Looking again at the footage of women, especially young women of color, winning their races for Congress, you feel the dissonance between sound and image.
What you’re seeing isn’t Clinton’s personal legacy. It’s the end of the choke hold that her worldview, so expertly presented here, once had over the Democratic Party. It’s the realization, after Hillary lost to Trump, that all bets were off, electability was no longer what you’d been told it was, that you may as well run on and vote for the supposedly crazy, overambitious things you actually want—such as what much of Europe would consider basic social provisions. Over the film’s closing credits, a song begins to play: “They said to survive / I had to walk along the line.” It’s not her fault the line moved—but we don’t need to feel sorry, either.