There’s something enthralling about documentaries that attempt to slough away the glossy finish slathered over public figures, be it a pop star on the rise or a politician looking to drop their ever-present smile-and-wave routine. And it makes sense: seeing beautiful, successful people at their worst is a kind of societal schadenfreude that we all innately understand. But something that is at times harder to understand—as is the case with Hulu’s new documentary about Hillary Clinton, Hillary—is who is this for, anyway?
It matters who the intended audience for such a documentary is, because it matters what folks are able to walk away with after watching. A more intimate knowledge of who this person is? A better understanding of why they dealt with certain people or public events the way they did? What makes them tick beyond their public persona? After watching Hillary, my instinct was that I should have more of an understanding of who Clinton is when the cameras are off. Or at very least, actually see her at her worst without any form of disclaimer or sanitized filter.
There never is a worst. In director Nanette Burstein’s ambitious four-part series, there is footage pulled together from Clinton’s historic 2016 presidential campaign, her time as President Obama’s Secretary of State, her early days in the White House as First Lady, alongside even fuzzier, more personal footage from before her time in politics: of her 1969 commencement speech at Wellesley, her time at Yale Law School, and even some clips from her early childhood growing up in the Illinois suburbs back in the 1950s. Clinton is noble and intelligent and untouchable in the way public figures’ public images tend to be. Nothing is being sloughed, just bolstered.
Burstein conducts interviews with everyone, from Clinton’s former campaign managers, to her husband Bill, to her childhood friends, to members of the press ,to Clinton herself. It’s a thorough exploration of the political and societal factors that impacted Clinton’s rise to power, and her ultimate fall from would-be grace. It is meant to show how forces outside of Clinton’s control tried to tear her down (namely, misogyny), and how she became a martyr in the press. But also, ultimately, how her biggest flaw was (and is) how she has a “responsibility gene” that prevents her from showcasing the “greatness of spirit” that the public naturally craves.
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. 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?
“I’m a private person,” she says at one point during the series. And it shows. When she reflects on the whole “baking cookies” debacle of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, she simply leaves it as, “I didn’t play the game well enough.” She gets quiet, retreating into herself, when she recalls the days following her husband’s very public betrayal in 1998. “I was devastated,” she says. In reaction to her 2016 presidential election loss: “I felt like I’d let everybody down.”
True, it’s not as though Clinton needs to be anyone other than her authentic self on-camera or off, even if her most authentic self is actually that stony. But given that she has the platform to be as sassy or angry or emotional as she wants to be (and can be, based on the behind-the-scenes clips that make up much of the documentary), it’s disheartening to see how guarded she still is when questioned directly on-camera. It feels unfair, in a way, that society has hardened her into a skeptic of the press and the public to the point that, even in a documentary meant to showcase her more human side, she only really manages to come off as bitter. Even if her bitterness is justifiable, it is still bitter nonetheless.
It also feels disjointed to experience so many different iterations of a person who never quite speaks freely (the most unfiltered she gets is when she talks trash about Bernie Sanders, whom she calls a “career politician” that “nobody likes”), when the ultimate message of the entire documentary is about how she herself is the target of “constant character assault.” Then there’s also the selective omissions—in the fourth and final episode of the documentary, footage of Clinton on the actual night of the devastating 2016 elections is noticeably absent. “I don’t think anyone wants to see that,” she quips distractedly while typing away on her phone. But, in fact, that’s exactly what viewers would want to see: the relatable, human breakdown that comes after three-and-a-half hours’ worth of build-up to that one crucial moment. This could have made all the difference.
While watching Hillary, I couldn’t help but think about that other recent documentary about a similarly polarizing public figure: Taylor Swift. Love her or hate her, Miss Americana actually portrays Swift in a more three-dimensional way, with insight into her insecurities—about her physical appearance, her dating life, and her political influence—and how, like Clinton, forces outside of her control tried to tear her down (namely, misogyny). What Swift’s documentary does that Clinton’s doesn’t, though, is drum up empathy. The singer, for all her reputation as someone who is fanatical about her public image, truly stops caring at a certain point and simply disappears from the public eye. She acknowledges that her self-imposed moral code to be “good” and liked has harmed her ability to be real and relatable; it’s her version of the “responsibility gene,” except she’s learned to unpack that and reframe. Clinton hasn’t.
Who is this for, anyway?
Documentaries about public figures these days can be, and often are, the equivalent of a well-crafted press release in visual form. That Clinton didn’t actually get vulnerable in hers feels like a miss, a loss for viewers who might actually want to give her a chance, or even supporters who want to get to know more about her beyond the headlines. Though it is helpful to think about Clinton’s personal and public life in the greater societal context of history, there isn’t very much that is laid out in the documentary that the public doesn’t already know. Nothing is being sloughed, just bolstered. And in that sense, Hillary, unfortunately, is really just for Hillary in the end.
Hillary is currently streaming on Hulu.
Joyce Chen is a writer/editor/creator from LA who spent a decade in NYC before relocating back to the West Coast in fall 2017. She has covered entertainment and human interest stories for Rolling Stone, Refinery29, Paste magazine, the New York Daily News, and People, and her creative writing credits include LitHub, Narratively, and Barrelhouse, among others. She is one of the cofounders of The Seventh Wave, a bicoastal arts and literary nonprofit, and holds an MFA from The New School and a BA in journalism and psychology from USC.
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