From the outset, Nanette Burstein’s documentary Hillary reaches to humanise its subject; that much is clear in its folksy tone and first name basis title. Yet although it generally succeeds in that goal, the four-part series – a flagship of Sky’s new, lockdown-friendly Documentaries channel – too often veers away from intimate contact with Clinton. More crucially still, its effort to demystify what went wrong in 2016 leaves much to be desired.
Both of those things may be less Burstein’s fault than Clinton’s. The former First Lady, Senator, Secretary of State and two-time presidential candidate quips early on in her seemingly lengthy sit-downs with Burstein, “I’m the most investigated innocent person in America.” Crucially, such hyperbole from a famously cautious speaker – with more than a glint of self-pity that sounds, dare I say, almost presidential these days – occurs after the camera is supposed to have stopped rolling. It may not be a very good line, and it’s likely a million miles from the truth, especially considering Clinton isn’t Black, but it’s a rare glimpse into her thinking. Hillary would be a valuable resource if only there were more of those.
About half of the series is a pretty effective review of Clinton’s life and times, a step-by-step journey through her radicalisation as one of few women at Yale Law School during the late-Sixties and early-Seventies. Burstein makes good use of dual storytelling à la The Last Dance to explore several decades of Clinton’s professional life alongside her greatest challenge and worst defeat: the 2016 presidential election. Recollections of the Arkansas years, her husband’s presidency, the Lewinsky scandal and Clinton’s tenure in the State Department are all well-told and thoroughly investigated, with useful input from all the key players.
But it’s in the latter narrative that Hillary begins to fall apart. The analysis of her unsuccessful White House run in 2016 is somewhere between one-sided and straightforwardly naïve, a series of all-too-wistful memories on the former candidate’s part and vignettes of what her many staffers – some of whom, in truth, seem like characters from Succession – were thinking. Jake Sullivan, her campaign chair, bemoaned Bernie Sanders’s tactics in striking terms: “What he did was basically go out there every day and say Hillary was corrupt.” The input of broadly sympathetic journalists offers little to the mix. The same applies to the recollection of the 2008 primaries against Obama, in which the Clinton campaign’s dirty tactics (not discussed in Hillary) characterised an ugly battle between America’s two most ambitious Democrats.
What’s clear is that, amid the multiple controversies (founded and otherwise) of the White House during the 1990s, Clinton developed a quiet contempt for the journalists whose questions became ever more critical – and difficult to answer. That hawkishness toward even well-meaning dissenters made for an insular, combative latter phase in her political career, in which her relationship with Bernie Sanders was frequently fraught. The harsh words she has for Sanders made headlines earlier this year when the series first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival –and as far as drama goes, they don’t disappoint. But Clinton would surely benefit from the sort of self-reflection she seems not to have engaged in, and which Hillary fatally suffers a lack of. There are genuine questions to be answered about Clinton’s decision-making as an officeholder and a private citizen. Unfortunately, Hillary – and its subject – aren’t interested.
Of course, Clinton is nowhere near as cynical or manipulative as her longtime critics have alleged for almost forty years now. She is no Lady Macbeth, and never has been. But as Hillary shows, she is blithe in her rejection of those opponents’ claims, and flippant in the face of almost any scrutiny. It’s therefore no surprise that Clinton came to embody a complacent liberal order that her worst opponent thrived on mocking. What is a surprise is that she has so few regrets.
Hillary will be airing on Sky Documentaries from the 11thJune.