Nanette Burstein’s must-watch doc demonstrates that Hillary Clinton emblemizes the first generation of ‘modern’ women, and why they have been so ‘threatening.’
When Hillary Clinton was a first year student at Wellesley College, she was elected president of the college’s Young Republicans Club. The bright, earnest student from a conservative Chicago family could never have foreseen then, that she would become the target of Republican vitriol in the decades to come. Vitriol so intense that hateful crowds would burn her in effigy when she toured the country as First Lady in 1993 to explain her plan to give Americans universal health care. In fact, so relentless have the attacks been that the Republicans would subject her to ten public investigations into the storming of the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya, and then six times into the private email server she used while she was Secretary of State for President Barack Obama.
But what Hillary’s classmates at the all girls’ college came to see about their determined classmate, who evolved into a Democrat during her years there, was that she was headed for great things. Now, it’s her greatest achievement to date: being nominated as the Democratic Presidential candidate in the 2016 election, that is examined in an insightful, four-part documentary series, Hillary, debuting on Hulu on March 6th.
Filmmaker, Nanette Burstein, who directed the series, was given access by Clinton to almost 2,000 hours of never-before-seen footage, that had been shot throughout the campaign. But she didn’t just do an “inside the campaign” documentary. Burstein decided after seeing the footage that Hillary’s “life was emblematic of the feminist movement and of women’s history over the last 50 years,” she told HollywoodLife, in an exclusive interview. “She was the one who is at the tip of the spear, always pushing the boundaries of what we are comfortable with, and that, unfortunately, comes with a lot of baggage. Burstein found that telling Hillary’s life story created “an opportunity to understand the arc (of women’s history) to understand that arc, and where we are today.”
The New York City-based director wanted to share Clinton’s life “in a very intimate, personal way.” To do that, she spent hours and hours interviewing Hillary, now 72, her husband of 44 years, President Bill Clinton, her old friends from college, presidential campaign staff, daughter Chelsea and more, to provide rare insights into her unique life and experiences. The result is that, there is no Hillary fan who won’t learn more about their idol. And perhaps even some of those Hillary haters, will be able to develop some empathy for a woman who has endured 30 years of attacks, since she became the First Lady of Arkansas.
Hillary, a talented young graduate of Yale Law School, where she met future husband, Bill Clinton, had become a fearless feminist shaped by the modern feminist movement, which exploded in the mid 1960s, when she moved to Arkansas. She thought nothing of keeping her maiden name – Rodham – after marrying Bill, joining a prestigious law firm in Little Rock, and then becoming the First Lady of Arkansas after Bill won the Governorship in 1979. But that proud decision was the start of the Hillary backlash. Burstein does a brilliant job of integrating old film footage of the Clintons from Arkansas to show the fresh-faced, naive First Lady of the state, as her youthful ideas ran head on into rigid conservative critics. The decision by the Governor’s wife to keep her maiden name was blamed for Bill’s loss in the next election. And so the hating began.
Hillary was publicly upbeat, even as she conceded to the pressure and adopted Clinton as her surname, and Bill was re-elected. But the documentary is unvarnished as it continues to follow Hillary’s groundbreaking experiences as the First Lady of America, and a very public lightning rod. Viewers of Hillary who are younger than 60 will be surprised – even shocked – by the viciousness that Clinton faced when she casually admitted in an interview that she didn’t just plan to bake cookies in the White House. Even today after Donald Trump’s relentless threats to “lock her up,” the barrage of nastiness that she faced as the First Lady, starting in 1992, is startling to watch in Burstein’s unblinking presentation.
“Hillary is probably the most iconic and recognized woman in contemporary female history… and she is one of the most polarizing as well,” says Burstein. “Some people admire you to the point of putting you on a pedestal because they’re so excited that you want to make change, and others are really threatened by it. So, there’s a lot of backlash.” When President Bill Clinton assigned his wife to head up a task force to come up with a plan for universal health coverage for all Americans in 1993, the reaction from Republicans was furious, even by 2020 standards. The First Lady was met by “Heil Hillary” signs and effigies of herself being burnt when she embarked on a speaking tour, to explain her proposals. “She was the first First Lady to take on any kind of major policy. She was overtly presenting herself as the First Lady who’s not just there to host parties. And that became very controversial,” explains Nanette. “I mean, I know that seems quaint now, but it was very controversial at the time.”
Hillary also became embroiled in controversies and attacks, both manufactured by the Republicans – the Whitewater and Vincent Foster investigations – and as a result of her husband’s affair with White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Why were the investigations endless? Bill Clinton became president after 12 years of the Republican administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Burstein believes he was attacked personally, and Hillary as well, because of the beginning of the intense partisan politics that we now see today so clearly. “There were so many investigations and accusations that were in the paper every single day, so it was easy for your average Americans to start wondering about the integrity of the Clintons, particularly her.” Then when Hillary was Secretary of State, there were the Benghazi and email server investigations, both of which she has now been cleared of any wrongdoing.
But, as Burstein points out: “People never forget accusations. And even people who are your supporters and friends who know and trust you, they can have a little space in the back of their minds, that maybe something is there.” The insidiousness of the attacks and smears, come across loud and clear in the documentary. And viewed in totality, in the four one-hour episodes of Hillary, a viewer can’t help but wonder, how Clinton has kept on going, kept on forging ahead in the face of so much venom.
“It’s pretty constant character assault,” points out Burstein. “For 30 years she does this. And the more you try to fight back and deny, and I mean you have to, obviously, but there’s no way of winning. Even if you’re cleared of everything, people never get over the accusations. And that’s why they are an incredibly powerful political tool for both sides.”
Think about it – how often did you hear from voters during the 2016 campaign that they just didn’t think Hillary was “trustworthy,” that she was “corrupt,” “dishonest” etc, but they could never specifically say why. Thirty years of allegations and smears have done their job. When it comes to analyzing the actual 2016 presidential campaign, the political strategy that the Clinton team used, almost feels irrelevant. Could there possibly have been anything that could have overcome the 30 years of sexist and political attacks?
The smears explain the other often heard comments, “I want to vote for a woman. Just not ‘that woman,'” says Burstein. “There is this deep unconscious bias that happens to women in general (running for president), they become that woman that is ‘unappealing,'” Burstein says she has also recently been hearing the same kind of comments leveled at the women running for president in 2020 – they are too “schoolmarmish” and people don’t like their “voices.” While the director wasn’t optimistic that the 2020 electorate will finally vote in female president, she firmly believes we “need to have a female president” to “normalize” women having huge leadership roles. “It has huge potential to trickle down and affect every aspect of our everyday lives – women being leaders of our society in various ways.”
The biggest surprise in Burstein’s doc is the insight into the Hillary/Bill marriage, and yes, it has, despite the doubters, been a true romance. There is no denying the adorable and adoring looks between Bill and Hillary in private photographs, many seen here for the very first time. The pictures from their Yale Law School days, their marriage and first years in Arkansas, picture a couple that appears madly and deeply in love. Bill particularly, looks completely head over heels for his self-confident and pretty 1970s’ “natural girl” girlfriend and wife. The president himself sat down for three days of interviews with Burstein. “He did that for her… he knew this was an opportunity for people to understand her in a way they’d never have”, Burstein tells HollywoodLife. The filmmaker is definitive about the union – “It is very much a real marriage… it wasn’t like it was some kind of arrangement.”
Why does she think Hillary stayed with Bill despite the multiple accusations of cheating and the White House affair with Lewinsky? “I think they went through so many hardships together and so many exciting moments. They haven’t just been life partners, but political partners. They raised a child together. When he was in office, she was his closest advisor. When she was running for office, he was her closest advisor. Their lives are so intertwined. I think that’s what made the affair so painful. But they probably felt like, I’m never going to have someone like this in my life again. There are so many things we’ve tried to achieve together – it’s unique to find that person that you can put all your trust in, to achieve your life goals.”
While Hillary may not have achieved her ultimate life goal – cracking the presidential glass ceiling – the documentary makes clear that every woman who aspires and will aspire to the Oval Office, owes her a thanks. She has taken every hit that any woman aiming for the White House could take, and she is still standing. Tune in to the Hillary four-part documentary on Hulu March 6.