‘Hillary’ Review: Hillary Clinton’s Hulu Documentary Pursues a Definitive Take on the Divisive Figure

“Hillary” has one helluva title sequence. Set to The Interrupter’s 2014 banger “Take Back the Power,” the hard-and-fast intro flashes photo after photo of Hillary Clinton’s face, pausing on the smiling Illinois toddler before flying into her fight for women’s rights at Wellesley College, her time in the Senate, years as First Lady, half-decade as U.S. Secretary of State, all the way through to today.

For a biographical documentary, this kind of rapid encapsulation may seem rather simplistic, even trite. 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.

That contention by itself is sure to inspire debate — because, over the years, what about Clinton hasn’t? — but the documentary’s goal sets up a divisive read of a divisive figure. Plenty of the docuseries’ arguments are convincing enough to infuriate “I’m With Her” voters and even force curious skeptics to relent on a few repeatedly cited issues — the Whitewater and email controversies are thoroughly debunked. But other topics are left off the table, like her “basket of deplorables” comment, and certain explanations feel like a stretch; not every misconception over nearly four decades in public office can be cleared up in a four-hour documentary.

Nor should it be. At its best, “Hillary” isn’t just a defense of Hillary Clinton, but a nuanced examination of why we don’t yet have a female president. In clarifying how America’s evolving sexism affected one of the country’s most prominent female leaders, the Hulu docuseries uses Clinton’s history to illustrate what may have gone wrong in her failed 2016 presidential bid. Burstein utilizes more than 2,000 hours of campaign footage to form the series’ throughline, bouncing between the bumps in her campaign and the past events that shaped it.

Kate McKinnon and Hillary Clinton in "Hillary"

Kate McKinnon and Hillary Clinton in “Hillary”

Barbara Kinney / Hulu

Featuring fresh interviews with Clinton, as well as her husband, Bill, daughter, Chelsea, former friends, fellow politicians, campaign staffers, and many, many more, “Hillary” covers just about everything that’s top of mind: Yes, both Hillary and Bill Clinton speak to his affair with Monica Lewinsky, including their marriage counseling and his personal sessions; yes, Hillary Clinton (and President Barack Obama) talks about her magnificent “Texts with Hillary” meme when she was Secretary of State; yes, Hillary Clinton goes off on Bernie Sanders (and yes, she’s standing by the interview now); yes, she warns her running mate Tim Kaine about Trump’s ties to Russia; yes, she talks about the debates, about the loss, about the aftermath — for those wanting to revisit any or all of this, “Hillary” has you covered.

“Hillary” can feel a bit haphazard in how it frames Clinton’s past against the campaign, but there aren’t many one-to-one comparisons. Burstein’s doc acknowledges none of these issues are as simple as, “Well, people got the wrong idea about ‘her emails’ because the press harped on it” — there are decades of pre-established conceits fueling that story’s fire, and layering in the backstory is key not just for the next thing you see in the doc, but for the entirety of Clinton’s career. Burstein uses the email scandal that hit at the start of her campaign to set up a dissection of how the candidate was “dehumanized” by early stereotypes; labels that she was “cold” and “calculating” stuck, even if they were unwarranted, and the docuseries shrewdly illustrates how these terms were used to alienate women from positions of power for decades.

Clinton is portrayed as a fighter and a rebel who’s also responsible and law-abiding; she pushed for equal rights and organized strikes for more diversity. Yet Clinton was the daughter of Republicans and aligned with the party until midway through college. Despite giving speeches most of her life, her public speaking is still stilted, even when she’s saying the right words. Shockingly, there are complexities to this living, breathing person, and yet those very human features were exactly what triggered the repeated rhetoric that dehumanized her.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in "Hillary"

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in “Hillary”

Barbara Kinney / Hulu

Still, Clinton’s purpose is clear: She wants to make a difference, shaping her state, her country, the world, and more. She can see how to do it (hence the unflinching eyes), but the factors holding her back are moving too fast to identify. One minute she’s being hailed as a progressive feminist leader, the next she’s too submissive to her husband or too corporate-focused to be a torchbearer for equality. Those opinions shift constantly through the documentary, until they all culminate in one toxic swamp of a campaign.

And this brings us back to that title sequence. Those shifting borders mirror the perceptions of Clinton evolving beyond her control, and through this lens, the empowering credits embody a war between reality and belief; between a woman who fought through sexism, conservative attacks, and the most openly foul presidential candidate to ever win, and a woman who’s perceived to be calculating, two-faced, and secretive. There’s simply no way any story — be it a book, feature, documentary, or even the longest story of all: a Netflix original series — could encompass everything that Clinton has gone through. Instead, “Hillary” informs in order to pester, asking its audience: “What’s your plan for tomorrow? Are you a fighter, or will you cower?” And after revisiting everything Hillary Clinton has done, you too will want to take back the power.

Grade: B+

“Hillary” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Hulu will release the four-part docuseries Friday, March 6.

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