tv review

Hillary Looks Back at the 2016 Election With 20/20 Hindsight

Photo: Barbara Kinney/Hillary for America/Hulu

Hillary, the new four-part docuseries about the life and career of Hillary Clinton, including her crushing defeat in the 2016 presidential campaign, is fascinating, insightfully structured, and, yes, often painful to watch. At times, watching Hillary is like volunteering to get punched in the face in the exact same spot you got punched four years ago, then looking in the mirror to examine a very familiar bruise.

It definitely hurts to revisit the pre-November 2016 feeling of excitement that, for many, surrounded the seemingly very real prospect that the United States would elect its first woman president. It hurts even more when, inevitably, Hillary reaches the part where Clinton staffers and supporters, many of them young women, collapse in tears while watching her make her concession speech. That grief stings all the more now that we know how much turmoil and chaos this country might have avoided, if just a few more electoral delegates had gone Clinton’s way.

That said, 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 (American Teen, The Kid Stays in the Picture) 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.

Given that this project clearly has Hillary Clinton’s blessing — she appears in extensive interviews, along with her husband, many of her former staffers, and longtime friends — its arc naturally bends toward her perspective. But that doesn’t make Hillary the equivalent of a vanity puff piece. Other journalists, people who have worked alongside her, and even Clinton herself do express criticisms and/or doubts about the choices she’s made. During the 2016 campaign, for example, when Clinton is asked during an early debate to release transcripts of her Wall Street speeches, we watch as a member of her team makes a sound argument as to why she should, and why some reasonable journalists might question her reasons for not doing so. Later in the docuseries, Jennifer Palmieri, director of communications for Clinton’s campaign, notes that when Wikileaks released the hacked emails of John Podesta, messages about portions of the speeches that Clinton’s staff found potentially controversial were among the things that leaked. That highlights a stubbornness in Hillary Clinton — “She is super-confident in her own righteousness,” as Peter Baker of the New York Times phrases it — and a reticence to be fully transparent with the press that many in the docuseries agree has caused repeated problems for her.

But 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. Via footage of her early days as a political wife, helping Bill Clinton run for attorney general of Arkansas, then governor, then president, there are times when she clearly tried to be herself and was punished for it. When reporters question presidential candidate Bill Clinton about whether his wife’s work at the Rose Law Firm in Arkansas took advantage of his gubernatorial connections for financial benefit, Hillary clarifies to reporters that she recused herself from any cases that would have suggested conflict of interest. “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession,” she famously said.

In 2020, that kind of comment would have been “yaas queened” all over the internet. In 1992 — which, the series points out, was a year before a ladies’ room was installed off the Senate floor — she was chastised for weeks for demonstrating a lack of respect for stay-at-home mothers. (By the way and for the record, the House of Representatives didn’t have a restroom for women near its floor until 2011. You heard me.) The docuseries makes clear that this kind of twisting or decontextualizing of Clinton’s words has happened to her repeatedly, as an explanation for why she often puts her guard up. By telling the story of Clinton’s 2016 campaign on a parallel plane with her personal story, which inevitably speaks to how American cultural attitudes toward women have evolved (and not evolved) over the past six decades or so, Burstein illustrates the degree to which Clinton was shaped not only by who she was, but also who the world demanded that she be.

Burstein doesn’t succeed at getting Clinton to open up about everything. When the series revisits Gennifer Flowers announcing her affair with Bill Clinton, Clinton tells Bustein, “We had challenges like any married couple would have and I’m not going to go any further than that.” But both she and Bill Clinton are more forthcoming than they’ve typically been on-camera about the Monica Lewinsky affair. Both recall the moment when President Clinton finally told his wife the truth about his relationship with the young intern, following months of “I did not have sex with that woman” denials in private and in public. Advisers to Hillary Clinton note that even in 2016, many voters judged her based on her decision to stay in the marriage, either because they think she was weak to do so, or because they presume she did it for calculated, ambitious reasons. “God knows the burden she paid for that,” Bill Clinton says, regretfully and wistfully, at the end of part three. Actually, we don’t need to guess what that burden was. It’s pretty clear. It’s also pretty clear that some of Hillary Clinton’s friends weren’t surprised that Bill Clinton engaged in such activity in the Oval Office.

The revisitation of the Clinton impeachment scandal is one of several moments during Hillary that makes anyone who voted for her in 2016 wish that she and her people had shaped her story the way this docuseries does while she was actually running for office. Even doing an interview akin to the ones Hillary and Bill do here could have gone a long way toward diffusing misperceptions about Hillary’s motives and their marriage.

Unfortunately, you can’t go back in time … except to the extent that you can while watching the extensive and intimate fly-on-the-wall footage from Clinton’s campaign, some of which has the effect of placing a pair of 20/20 hindsight goggles over our eyes. Cameras capture a private conversation between Clinton and running mate Tim Kaine, in which Kaine reveals that Obama called him the night before and said, “Remember, this is not a time to be a purist. We’ve got to keep a fascist out of The White House.”

“I don’t say this lightly,” Clinton responds, referring to her opponent Donald Trump, “but his agenda is other people’s agendas.” She starts listing individuals involved in Trump’s campaign who have since been charged with federal crimes (Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn) and notes how Putin has increasingly been taking over the political apparatus. It’s like listening to someone describe the future before it’s actually taken place.

Then there is the awkward, pre-debate backstage encounter between Clinton and Bernie Sanders, where the two struggle to make even the most basic small talk. Clinton’s comments about the democratic socialists made headlines weeks ago, following the docuseries’ Sundance premiere and well before its debut on Hulu.

“Honestly, Bernie just drove me crazy,” she says. “He was in Congress for years. Years. He had not one senator support him. Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done.”

Plenty of people would not agree with that assessment of Sanders. But whether you do or don’t, again, Hillary at least makes you understand why Clinton — who, for the record, was trying to get universal health care passed back in the 1990s — might have resented Sanders. After being forced to the margins either by men or the mistakes of men, dating all the way back to high school when a boy who beat her in a high-school presidential election then asked her to do all the work for him (which she did), you can see why she may have had limited patience for a man shouting about “revolution,” while Clinton has been demonized her whole life for being either a “radical feminist” or a mainstream corporate sellout. Hillary Clinton has felt like she just can’t win, literally and metaphorically, and that, above all else, comes through loudly and clearly over these four hours.

You might not agree with her. But after watching Hillary, you may be able to do something that America has had a really hard time doing over the years: You may understand her.

’Hillary’ Looks at the 2016 Election With 20/20 Hindsight