This interview originally published during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. We are republishing it on the occasion of the Hulu release of the docuseries.
There’s something weirdly cathartic about Nanette Burstein’s four-part docuseries Hillary, which premiered this past weekend at the Sundance Film Festival and will air on Hulu this March. The film tackles the broad arc of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life and career by intercutting behind-the-scenes footage of the 2016 election with events from the rest of her life, alongside extensive interviews with Clinton herself, as well as numerous staffers, friends, journalists, and politicians, including Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. We’ve had plenty of memoirs and biographies about this stuff, but seeing it all on film allows us to make critical connections and notice patterns. (Consider the whipsawing reactions to her politics: too left, too right, too center, and never ever just right.) Watching the four-hour series — which flies by, thanks in part to surprisingly forthright interviews with both Hillary and Bill Clinton, but also to Burstein’s energetic direction of the material — you experience a compressed version of all the many different feelings you’ve probably had about the former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State over the years, and you probably question a few of your initial reactions as well. I certainly did. We discussed all this and more when I sat down with Secretary Clinton and Burstein in Park City, Utah.
Which one of you had more trepidation about doing this movie?
Hillary Clinton: [Laughs.] I think that might be a tie!
Nanette Burstein: Yeah, exactly. Certainly, for me, it’s a hard story to “get right.” There’s so much information and it’s so complicated, at least the way I conceived it. I also knew that, because Secretary Clinton has polarizing reactions, the reaction to the film could also be polarizing, depending on how you see the world.
HC: For me, when this all started, it was going to be a film about the campaign. We had about 1,700 hours of behind-the-scenes footage, and people approached us and said, “We’d love to get access to that. We’d love to think about doing a campaign movie.” I was all in favor of that, because I thought, number one, there was probably some good stuff. It was a real opportunity to highlight the roles that so many people played, and maybe do a better job of explaining what was going on. And then I was presented with a couple of directors. I met Nanette, and she seemed not only to have done some very good films before, but understood, or would work to understand, the complexity of the story. And that’s indeed what happened. Then they came back and said, “Hey, you know what? We want to make it about you and your life, and how it fits into the arc of women’s history and political history in our country.”
What was the most surprising thing in this film for you?
HC: Well, I don’t know if I’d describe it as a surprise, but I was really impressed by the way Nanette wove in different phases of my life and events that were happening — not in a straight, chronological way, but very skillfully moving from the past to the present, and doing it in every episode, so that you were constantly seeing what happened in 2016, juxtaposed with what I was doing fighting for health care in the White House [in the 1990s] and being burned in effigy by people who didn’t want us to get health care. So it was surprising, because I wouldn’t know how to do that. I’d have no idea how to do that! But it was really effective.
Did it make you think differently about certain parts of your career at all, that juxtaposition?
HC: No, because I think it showed that I have not only been consistent, but I’ve been consistently subjected to an ongoing campaign to undermine or polarize or diminish what I was doing and standing for. I knew that, because I’d lived through it — but seeing it on the screen and watching it over four hours just drove that home. For example, one thing that she put in was my going to ground zero after 9/11, the very next day. And that’s a fact. I was there. There are pictures of me there. And for the last several years, Rudy Giuliani has been saying I wasn’t there. You think to yourself, What would motivate him to do that? Well, he comes from the school of “Tell the lie enough and people might believe it, even contrary to their own eyes.” And he didn’t want to admit that I was instrumental in doing what we did to rebuild New York. That was really telling, to see that in the film.
Are you familiar with the concept of the sleeper effect? It’s the idea that information from unreliable sources, even though you recognize them as unreliable, over a period of time, they stick in your head. So you remember the information, but you forget where you heard it. I think this really applies to the way people view you. I’d see people on the left in 2016 parroting talking points that I remember coming from the extreme right 20 years ago.
HC: There’s another element to that — I hadn’t heard that particular phrase, but I know the phenomenon — and that is you lie about somebody often enough, even when the lies are disproved, even people who generally favor you or even know you, they can’t get it out of their heads. [Former House Majority Leader] Kevin McCarthy is in the film, basically saying [about the Benghazi hearings], “Remember what her numbers were when she got out of being Secretary of State? 68 percent, 69 percent favorability. Wow, look what we did to her.”
Because of the way a film in general compresses timelines, and because of the way this particular film cuts between the distant past and the more recent past, the divergence of opinions around you becomes so much more pronounced. I remember in the early-to-mid-1990s, people thought you were this raging lefty who was pulling poor centrist Bill Clinton to the left — the devil on his shoulder. Then, flash-forward to 2016, and now you’re accused of being the corporate shill, too conservative, all this stuff. It was fascinating to see those juxtaposed.
HC: Yeah, interesting, isn’t it?
NB: Amy Chozick, the New York Times reporter, has a great sound bite: “For most of her career, she was fighting against the notion that she was this bra-burning liberal, and now she’s trying to convince the people that she is a liberal, and it had to be frustrating that people just didn’t understand who she was at all.” You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
Were you worried about potentially interjecting yourself into the current election? Obviously, this happened recently with your comments about Bernie Sanders in the film kind of blowing up all over the press.
HC: No, I really wasn’t. And first of all, I had no control over when it would be done and when it would be released. That was the decisions of the filmmaker and Hulu. But I didn’t particularly worry about it, because I’m firmly on the side of making sure we retire Donald Trump and electing whoever our Democratic nominee is. And I think in a way, this film might for some voters explain why the stakes are so high. The obstacles to a lot of the progress that many of us would like to see don’t change: financial interests, religious and ideological interests that really want to turn the clock back. And when you think about this upcoming election, it’s going to be a real challenge to defeat Trump, and we’ve got to all be united to get that done.
Have you heard from Bernie Sanders since the comments came out?
HC: No, but it was like 15 seconds in a four-hour documentary.
Well, but you know how it is.
HC: Yeah, I do know how it is. I said the same day, “Look, I’m going to support whoever the nominee is.” And I know how important that is, because I did that in ’08, when I actually got more votes than Barack Obama, but he got more delegates. And as soon as that happened, I turned around, I dropped out, I endorsed him, I campaigned for him, I went to the floor of the convention to move his nomination by acclamation. That didn’t happen for me. I won by a huge margin for a primary, 4 million votes, and they were litigating it down to 24 hours before the election. And I think we have to speak out about that and make very clear we can’t let that happen again.
I think about the speeches of yours that have moved me the most. It’s 2008, your speech right after Barack Obama clinches the nomination. Then again in 2008, your speech at the Democratic National Convention. And then in 2016, your concession speech. To be fair, these are iconic speeches now, but I also think to myself, Why is it that it’s always in failure or defeat that I and others wind up most admiring Hillary Clinton?
HC: I really can’t answer that. I can speculate that women seeking power are still an oddity to some extent. And the relief at being able to just watch and react to a woman who’s not asking you for power — who is once again in an understandable social role of supporting somebody else, or acknowledging that she fell short — has a resonance with people. There’s no confusion or complexity about it, because, you know, I’m not running for anything. I’m not holding any public office. And I think it gives people a clearer view of who I’ve always been, but who they can now maybe see me again as being.
NB: One of my favorite stories in the film was from her childhood. Her close childhood friend, Betsy Ebeling, is talking about how she wanted to run for president of the class, and no girl was ever elected president. And Hillary still tried, being Hillary. And she didn’t win. But then the guy who did win asked her to do all the work. I just feel like that happens still today. I see it in Hollywood. I see all of the people at the top are men, and then there’s women just underneath them, and I just find it baffling that in 2020 this is still happening in so many different industries.
HC: But I think this is really deep. I don’t think it’s that conscious with most people. Once you fall back into a recognizable role or position, it liberates people to exhale and say, “Okay, I don’t have to make a decision about hiring her as a director, or nominating her for an Oscar, or voting for her … and she’s not a bad person and she’s actually doing a good job.” I think there’s so much embedded in our continuing unpacking of gender and stereotypes and caricatures, and I hope that this film sparks a conversation about that. Even your question, which was a very honest question: Why did people love my concession speech? I think I gave a lot of other good speeches, but I was just overwhelmed by the noise. There was just a tremendous amount of other stuff going on. So once you get to the end point, and it’s over, and you have to give a speech because that’s what’s expected of you, people go, Oh, and they love it on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and all of that. Because it’s like, Okay, I understand this role. I was conflicted, confused about the other role, because that’s not what I could envision.
NB: People would say, “Well, where was Hillary Clinton during the campaign making this kind of speech?” I watched all of these speeches from her campaign, because I inherited all the behind-the-scenes, including all of the different events she did. And she made these kinds of speeches, but no one was tuning in or paying attention.
HC: Well, it was hard to compete with the overwhelming reality-TV performance of Trump. They wouldn’t show my speech, but they’d show an empty podium waiting for him. Because he was exciting. He was good for ratings. He was good for profits. You never knew what he was going to say. Who would he insult? I’d get up and give this boring speech about how we’re going to get health care for everybody. The press wasn’t interested in that. Policy’s not important, personality is important, which is one of the messes we’ve got ourselves in when it comes to our politics — because it really does matter what people stand for, what they say they’re going to do, and whether they can deliver. I saw this in real time, and it was very tough to compete with that.
As you’re making the film, does what’s happening in the news affect how you’re structuring things, how the story is being told?
NB: Probably, to an extent. When we were just starting to edit the project, it was during the Kavanaugh hearings, and it reminded me so much of what we address in the film with the Anita Hill hearings, and the same history is playing out. And then the same backlash happens, where then we vote in a number of women into Senate and Congress. Back [in 1992], it was only six women, which was revolutionary at the time. And it was infinitely more in this past election. But yes, it was remarkable to watch history repeating itself all the time.
Who did you reach out to that did not want to be in the film?
NB: About 30 different conservatives, maybe more. Yeah, it was very hard to get voices from the other side of the aisle.
Was there anybody you really wanted and tried hard to get?
NB: There were two voices in the conservative party I was really hoping would sit down with me. One was Newt Gingrich, because he was such a presence from the other side during the White House years. The other was Lindsey Graham, because he worked closely with Secretary Clinton when she was in the Senate, but has a very different opinion and language about her today. And both, there was no equivocation about it. Newt Gingrich first said no diplomatically, in writing. And then I was able to reach him on a cell phone, and he said, “I’d rather stick a needle in my eye than sit down for an interview about it.” Even though I was very clear that this is fair and balanced, there’s no editorial control from [the Clintons]. And Lindsey Graham’s office could not have responded quicker. Basically they were like, Are you kidding me?
HC: That just shows you how far the other side has gone in its uncompromising, ideological, partisan positioning. I traveled with Lindsey Graham and John McCain. I worked with [Graham] on a few issues. He wrote an article praising me a few years ago for, I think Time 100. But Trump has so captured the Republican Party and the minds of so many of these officials that they won’t say or do anything. They’re scared. You know, Trent Lott, the senator from Mississippi, was the majority leader during part of the time I was in the Senate. And I mean, he told people, “She was great to work with. She really could get things done. She helped enormously after Katrina, based on her experience with 9/11.” That’s all on the public record. But today they wouldn’t be caught saying anything positive. And it’s very troubling that we’ve gotten to this point, and it’s not a both sides issue. It is their issue. They are the ones who are refusing to resume what I would consider as a normal political debate over important issues.
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