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Hulu's Hillary is stuck in an old echo chamber, revealing almost nothing new about Hillary Clinton

  • Director Nanette Burstein's four-part Hillary Clinton Hulu docuseries tries so hard to make the former first lady, U.S. senator, secretary of state and Democratic nominee for president relatable and universal that Hillary "ultimately flattens the cultural and historical uniqueness of Clinton’s story," says Pier Dominguez. "Clinton is in some ways unique as a woman celebrity politician, and the fact that the public had already formed a specific understanding about her after years of her being in the public eye, is a complicated — and gendered — aspect of what impacted the 2016 election. But because the documentary seems determined to produce the most sympathetic reading, it never contextualizes such questions outside of Clinton’s very specific journey." Dominguez adds: "The documentary’s attempt to make Clinton into a kind of representative figure of women’s history never fully works, in part because it’s in thrall to her celebrity without analyzing it, and because it never contextualizes her journey outside the way it has already been covered by the media. The people interviewed, for example, are limited to her friends, campaign operatives, and establishment media commentators from the New York Times or Washington Post; there are no academics or historians giving less inside-the-bubble perspectives on Clinton’s public image...Ultimately, as Hillary moves back and forth in time, it’s a muddled combination of biographical portrait, clichéd media criticism, and banal political commentary that reveals almost nothing new about Clinton — the person, the politician, the celebrity — or the media coverage that has surrounded her for decades."


    • As a whole, Hillary is a fittingly messy, compelling portrait of an equally messy, compelling person: "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," says Caroline Framke. "(It would honestly be unsurprising to learn that (Nanette) 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."
    • Hillary feels like it's trying to shill as it professes transparency: "Even presented in a medium meant to expose and truth-tell, Hillary still feels like it’s carefully constructed with a point of sale at the end of it, an image that it’s trying to shill even as it professes transparency," says Joyce Chen. "Having a 'responsibility gene' is the equivalent of telling a potential employer that your biggest shortcoming is 'caring too much about work'—it may be true, but it still feels disingenuous. Which is unfortunate, because so much of the (at times unfair) criticism that Clinton garnered on the 2016 campaign trail was that she was inauthentic, stiff, and—that word—unlikeable. It’s clear from behind-the-scene snippets that her staff never found her to be any of those things, but as a result of constantly being under public scrutiny, Clinton still comes across on the documentary as guarded, defensive, tired. And in that sense, one has to ask, again, who is this for, anyway? Hillary fans? Her detractors? Voters who are fear-watching the documentary ahead of the 2020 elections? Are we meant to learn anything new?"
    • Hillary will let you understand Hillary Clinton, even if you don't support her: "What Hillary does is what really good television of any kind does: It makes you understand the motivations of the protagonist and empathize with her, even if you don’t always agree with her," says Jen Chaney. She adds: "Hillary is much more than just a sad, frustrating trip down bad memories lane. Rather than laying out Clinton’s experiences in straightforward chronological order, director Nanette Burstein toggles between her personal history and behind-the-scenes footage from her 2016 campaign in ways designed to make viewers rethink some of what we already know about the figure dubbed in the docuseries as 'one of the most admired and one of the most vilified women in history.' To return to my previous metaphor, yeah, the bruise you see in the mirror may look familiar. But there is value in inspecting it again, and reconsidering the context behind the punch that put it there. Hillary is about Hillary Clinton, yes. But it’s also a recap of how America has viewed feminism and women seeking power during the late-20th and early-21st centuries. That makes it essential viewing."
    • Hillary doesn’t shy away from showing Hillary Clinton in a bad light: "She seems to acknowledge her husband’s history of infidelity and alleged inappropriate behavior with women in the most coached way possible," says Meghan O'Keefe. "When asked about his early affairs, she says, 'We were not perfect.' Then a friend straight up tells Burstein that Clinton is 'not a confider,' suggesting that she has been carefully covering up the worst of her husband’s behaviors and the darkest of her own thoughts. But Hillary shows us glimpses of venom in Clinton. Namely, she makes a now viral comment about Bernie Sanders in Episode 2 that drags her 2016 opponent. Again, Hillary is fascinating because it delves into the contradictions of the woman."
    • Hillary is not the look back in triumph that it may have been expected to be: "Hillary is not able to add many new pieces to that puzzle, and it spends a fair amount of time rearranging familiar ones," says James Poniewozik. "But at its best, it puts its subject in the context of not just one consequential election night but decades of slow-changing cultural history....But where Hillary stands out is how it finds in Clinton’s early years the foreshadowing of all the attacks she would face in 2008 and 2016 — not just flat-out sexism, but the charges of inauthenticity that connected to her learned defense mechanisms against being too much herself. There’s a tragic irony to Burstein’s narrative, a picture of a warrior weighed down by the armor that kept her alive."
    • Hillary 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," says Lidija Haas. "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.'"
    • While Hillary promises to be a warts-and-all portrait of her life, the positives far outweigh the negatives: "The other people interviewed are either childhood friends, former staffers or mostly sympathetic media members, with almost no opposing voices included; at times, Hillary feels like an elaborate campaign video rather than a clear-eyed examination of her life," says Dave Nemetz. "There are mild allusions made to possible missteps made by her campaign, but they’re quickly swept away in a wave of feel-good girl power. As a whole, Hillary is still a fascinating historical document, though, and forces us to confront why we feel so strongly about this woman, one way or another. Watching it might not make you like her any more… but maybe it’ll help you understand her a little better."
    • Hillary has one helluva title sequence set to The Interrupter's "Take Back the Power": "For a biographical documentary, this kind of rapid encapsulation may seem rather simplistic, even trite," says Ben Travers. "But what makes the sequence so watchable, time and time again, is that Clinton’s eyes never move. The montage’s unchanging focal point is aesthetically absorbing, sure, but it also serves as the window into director Nanette Burstein’s wider argument: Much of what’s kept Hillary Clinton from her purpose in life is beyond her control."
    • As an interviewee, Clinton remains guarded, defensive and practiced — though viewers are offered slightly more context for those campaign-weakening faults
    • Hillary behind the scenes tidbits: Hillary Clinton spent 35 hours over seven days speaking to the camera, while Bill Clinton required no convincing to discuss Monica Lewinsky.
    • Hillary director Nanette Burstein on convincing Hillary Clinton to be candid about her husband's affair with Lewinsky: “She was not excited to relive that and share her personal feelings about that. That was very obvious,” Burstein says. “I mean, she was willing to do it and she knew it was important to do it, but it was definitely hard for her to do it.”

    TOPICS: Hillary, Hulu, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, Nanette Burstein, Documentaries