Nanette Burstein’s series documentary Hillary (Sky Documentaries) is a four-hour portrait of probably the most famous and divisive female figure in modern politics. It was assembled from more than 2,000 hours of backstage footage from her 2016 election drive, interviews with 45 of the people who know her best (from childhood friends to her campaign aides, alongside her daughter Chelsea and – I don’t know if you remember this guy but – her husband Bill) and 35 hours of face-to-face interviews with the woman herself. It interweaves the story of the fateful election with her personal history, recapping her upbringing as the child of staunch Republican Methodist parents, her academic brilliance, the influence of second wave feminism, her professional success as a lawyer and her marriage. There is, of course, much on her political career and the media narratives that have been endlessly constructed and deconstructed around her, as the peaks (such as beating Bernie Sanders in Iowa) and troughs (oh dear God, the troughs) of the campaign trail are navigated.
Everything you would expect to be here is here. The problem is that this four-hour portrait has the full involvement of its subject and sanctioned cooperation of everyone around her. We have the friends who attest to her early interest in public service, the professor who talks of her pragmatic, problem-solving attitude and fierce intelligence. The Whitewater scandal is noted, but only Clinton’s disbelief at the subsequent conspiracy theories are given any airtime. The Monica Lewinsky revelations are raked over – Bill teary-eyed with regret at “the things I did for years to manage my anxieties” – as we see the former communications director marvelling at Hillary’s courage during the fallout.
It’s not exactly a hagiography, but there is no grit in the oyster. The bookending of each episode with faux-informal chat between her and Burstein as Clinton has her face powdered and prepares for filming proper are cloying attempts at conveyingintimacy. Burstein has spoken about the refusal of any Republicans to take part in the film because, she says, they felt that Clinton’s central involvement would result in their claws being pulled in the edit. Whatever the truth of that, the result is that the closest we get to criticism is a journalist describing her in relation to her refusal to release the transcripts of her speeches to Wall Street companies as “extremely confident in her own righteousness – and that can trip anyone up”.
Clinton is rarely pressed on any personal or political issues and in a sense there would be no point in doing so. She has been doing this for too long and under far more extreme and challenging circumstances to give away any morsel of herself more than she chooses now. Weaselly reframings (“I suffer from the responsibility gene”, she says in explanation of her inability to deliver the kind of simple messages demanded by a presidential nominee or candidate. “I don’t like to say something I know isn’t doable”), passive-voiced glosses, and not-quite apologies are allowed to stand. A flash of anger about Sanders (“He just drove me crazy … no one wanted to work with him, he got nothing done, he was a career politician”) only serves to throw the careful, controlled blandness of the rest into relief.
Of the darker allegations about corruption and sexual scandal that have dogged the Clintons, almost nothing was said. Elsewhere, Burstein has stated that she took a conscious decision not to ask the Clintons about Juanita Broaddrick’s claim that Bill raped her (which he denies), nor any of the other assault allegations, lest it “become more about his story than hers”. Hmm.
Still, watching her lose to the bullyboy tactics of Trump remains an agony. Her interviews were filmed in November 2018 and you find yourself shaking your head and muttering “You don’t know the half of it, lady” in despair. As the final hour of the quartet marched on, it dawned on me that existence since 2016 has been like living in a counterfactual. Someone was writing a what-if novel or film or television series as the Brexit and US election votes came in and somehow there was a slip, a glitch in the matrix, and we have been living with the results ever since. Love Clinton or hate her, it could – and, according to the popular vote, should – have been so different.