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Review: Hillary (2020)

Hillary (2020)

Directed by: Nanette Burstein

Premise: A biographical documentary about Hillary Clinton. The film covers Clinton’s formative years, her marriage to Bill Clinton, and her terms as First Lady and Senator for New York as well as her 2008 and 2016 campaigns for President of the United States.

What Works: Hillary consists of four one-hour episodes and it has an impressively broad scope. Hillary Clinton has been one of the most visible public figures in American life for the past three decades and this documentary offers a basic overview of Clinton’s life. The filmmakers manage to at least touch upon all of her major public roles and so Hillary’s primary value is as a historical document for audiences of the future who want to know who this person was. The best parts of the documentary are its personal moments. When Clinton and her family open up about living in the fishbowl of American politics and their mistakes and challenges, Hillary delivers on its promise of offering the inside story. This is also a well-produced documentary. It integrates contemporary interviews with news clips and behind-the-scenes footage in a way that is aesthetically consistent.

What Doesn’t: Hillary Clinton has been in the public eye for a long time and she has inspired both passionate admiration and fanatical animosity. This documentary won’t change anyone’s mind about her. But beyond visualizing Clinton’s resume, Hillary has to be understood as a deliberate attempt to set the narrative of Clinton’s legacy. That’s precisely where this documentary gets into trouble. Like most politicians, Hillary Clinton was generally careful and measured in her public appearances, an approach that—fair or not—played into a narrative that Clinton was untrustworthy. The techniques used by the filmmakers are very obviously intended to create the impression of transparency and authenticity. The behind-the-scenes footage offers us a look at allegedly candid moments and several of Clinton’s interview cut-ins include the filmmaking crew touching up Clinton’s makeup as she opines. Some of these moments are suspiciously candid; these are filmmaking choices calculated to create the impression of transparency without actually offering anything substantive. The interviewees, including Hillary Clinton herself, acknowledge that she is a polarizing figure. But the filmmakers never really ask why. The film includes a variety of commentators but virtually all of them are Clinton staffers and supporters. No one offers any substantial criticism of Clinton other than that she was occasionally naïve. The filmmakers are astonishingly uncurious and uncritical about a person who they acknowledge to be such a contentious figure. The crux of Hillary’s argument is that she was an important feminist figure of the last thirty years. That impression is certainly created but the film’s omissions speak as loudly its content. Most of the screen time covering Clinton’s tenure as First Lady is dedicated to the Whitewater investigation and the impeachment scandal. Her only policy work from that time covered here is the intended expansion of health care which was a failure. After eight years as First Lady, Clinton subsequently spent as much time as the United States Senator from New York. This is papered over. Virtually no legislative or policy content from her Senate career is covered in this documentary, conveniently ignoring Clinton’s two most consequential votes: her support for the USA Patriot Act and the Iraq War resolution. Hillary’s greatest amount of screen time is dedicated to Clinton’s 2008 and 2016 presidential campaigns. This is the film’s biggest effort in resetting the historical record. It’s also riddled with omissions. As documented here, Clinton’s presidential campaigns faced sexist backlash. But this documentary would have viewers believe sexism is the sole reason for her losses. At no point does this documentary deal with the actual substance of the election, the way Clinton was out of step with the mood of the country, or the critical failures of strategy. Misogyny is real and Clinton certainly faced it but this documentary uses sexism as a shield to fend off any criticisms. The film closes with Clinton assuming credit as a trailblazer for other female politicians but noticeably absent are any women in office citing her as an inspiration and the film integrates news footage of politicians like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib  who have spoken critically of Clinton. While this documentary may be semantically accurate, it is dishonest in its omissions and its overstatement of Hillary Clinton’s importance to history.

DVD extras: Currently available on Hulu.

Bottom Line: Hillary should not be confused for the kind of reflective and confessional documentary like Errol Morris’ The Fog of War in which Robert McNamara examined his life and legacy. Hillary purports to offer an unvarnished look at Hillary Clinton but this is a piece of legacy building fashioned by the Clintons and their allies. Despite running four hours in length, this documentary offers little more than can be gleaned from Hillary’s Clinton’s Wikipedia page. 

Episode: #806 (June 28, 2020)