Hulu’s Hillary Is a Warning

The four-part documentary does more than simply retell the story of the former presidential candidate’s life and career.

The director's intention was not only to get to know Clinton, but also to understand why people found her so compelling—and so polarizing. (Jeffrey Markowitz / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic)

Despite the title, Hillary isn’t really about Hillary. Not to the docuseries’ director, Nanette Burstein, anyway.

As a veteran of telling stories about controversial subjects, Burstein knew a documentary about one of the most prominent modern political figures would likely be short on revelations. Even with her exclusive access to Hillary Clinton and an array of her friends and staffers, the director understood that she’d be covering the same bases as Clinton’s own memoirs. So instead, Burstein approached Clinton’s life story as a case study, a way to try to answer a pivotal question about the state of U.S. politics today: Can a woman ever—really, actually, not just as a rhetorical question or thought exercise—become president?

Throughout Hillary, which premiered yesterday on Hulu, Burstein splices archival clips from Clinton’s career with footage from her 2016 campaign. Those videos—culled from about 1,700 hours documenting the former presidential candidate on the road—had originally been shot by Clinton’s team in the hopes of making a retrospective film about her bid for office. The director, who sought to expand the scope of that project after the election, approached her interviews with Clinton with the intention not only of getting to know her subject, but also of understanding why people found Clinton so compelling—and so polarizing.

Burstein and I spoke in January in Pasadena, California, shortly after she introduced the docuseries as part of Hulu’s presentation for the Television Critics Association press tour. She arrived onstage alongside Clinton herself, to the great interest of the journalists in the room. (A network’s slate preview doesn’t usually feature guests who come with a Secret Service presence.) To Burstein, that fascination—positive or negative—with Clinton made for the perfect gateway to explore her own interests in the docuseries. “As I got deeper into [studying Clinton], I really felt like, well, this is an opportunity to understand some of the things I most care about, which is the history of contemporary feminism in the United States, and the history of partisan politics and how that works,” she told me.

As a result, Hillary covers Clinton’s rise to celebrity and feminist-icon status as much as it interrogates the intensity with which people react to her actions, and it does so without cinematic flair. The most conspicuous creative choice Burstein makes is to use Clinton’s 2016 campaign as an anchor to tell the rest of her life story, illuminating the contradictory expectations that have persisted throughout Clinton’s career. She weaves together proof of hatred (a clip of her being burned in effigy for pushing health-care reform as first lady in 1994) and of ardent adoration (news footage of women walking 13 hours to see her in India when she visited in 1995)—sequences that paint a picture of Clinton as a public figure who inspires visceral reactions. In her previous films, Burstein added artistic touches; The Kid Stays in the Picture told the story of the film producer Robert Evans mostly through stylized photographs. Hillary presents the story without embellishment or narration.

It’s a call-and-response—here’s a scene from her 2016 run; now here’s what informed it—and it’s effective in its straightforward presentation. Burstein juxtaposes how, on the campaign trail, Clinton was criticized for coming off as too cold, yet years earlier, she’d been forced to learn how to be unemotional, to hold her ground as the rare female law student. Burstein shows how Clinton the candidate was accused of playing the “woman card,” but as first lady of Arkansas, she was once seen as not feminine enough. These contrasting snapshots accentuate Burstein’s point: that Clinton’s gender both helped and hindered her in unpredictable ways. She was scrutinized because of it, policed because of it, loved for it, hated for it. Any female politician who rises to national prominence, Hillary suggests, will be met with the same fierce admiration or harsh contempt. History tends to repeat itself, after all.

When Hulu released the trailer for Hillary, the YouTube comments ranged from lingering #ImWithHer supporters applauding Burstein to detractors calling the director a modern-day Leni Riefenstahl. “I knew from the very beginning, doing this, no matter what I do, it will be criticized,” Burstein conceded. “It will be, ‘Oh, this is too fluffy,’ or ‘This is too critical. Please go away. Why are you doing this?’ No matter what we did, no matter how hard I tried to get at what I thought was the most honest depiction of all these very complicated things that come up, it will never be okay, and so I have to be okay with that.”

Hillary covers Clinton’s rise to celebrity and feminist-icon status as much it interrogates the intensity with which people react to Clinton’s actions. (Barbara Kinney)

Clinton’s polarizing reputation often worked against Burstein’s goal of making a balanced series. Her wish list of interviewees wasn’t limited to Clinton’s childhood friends; her husband, former President Bill Clinton; her daughter; and other political allies such as former President Barack Obama. She also spoke with journalists who covered Clinton closely and the Republican former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. But Burstein had hoped to have more conservatives go on the record. “I really wanted more Republicans in it, but it was hard to get them to do that,” she told me. In fact, she recalled, the former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich so hated the idea of participating that he responded to her request by saying, “I would rather stick a needle in my eye than talk to you about Hillary Clinton in a documentary.”

Burstein laughed after sharing the anecdote. “That was across the board,” she told me, listing other Republicans, including Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Lindsey Graham—who wrote a tribute to Clinton in Time magazine in 2006—as major names she tried hard to recruit. “They all just said no,” Burstein said. “That surprised me.” Then again, she noted, she had been interested in exploring Clinton’s divisiveness. These rejections made for the perfect, albeit unusable, proof.

When Clinton agreed to participate in Hillary, she wasn’t quite sure what she was in for. She wasn’t informed of the list of sources Burstein had reached out to, or whether the footage would be turned into a film or a series, or whether anything she said in her 35 hours of interviews—“marathons,” as she put it—would be useful. In fact, she told me that same day in Pasadena, she remembered less about herself than Burstein did.

“[Nanette] had really mastered my life,” Clinton marveled, adding that Burstein spent a year studying her before turning the camera on. “She remembered things about my life in a sequence that I didn’t remember! Like, ‘Did that happen then?’ ‘Yes, that happened then.’ ‘Oh, okay!’ …  I’m in awe of what they pulled together, because it would be impossible for me to take even the 35 hours of my interview and make sense of it. It was all over the place.”

Burstein overprepared for a reason. She’d hoped her extensive research would help Clinton process her past more deeply and openly when the time came for their interviews. This would be the first time in decades, she reasoned, that Clinton would be able to engage in a wide-ranging conversation about herself as a private citizen. “This is the first time she hasn’t had to be careful,” Burstein said.

Indeed, even during our conversation, Clinton seemed eager to be able to speak openly about the upcoming presidential election; she sees the candidates facing the same issues that she did in 2016. “As I’ve told every one of the candidates that I’ve talked to, ‘Voter suppression is still going to hurt you. The stealing of your emails and the weaponization of them will hurt you. The fake news propaganda, especially with Facebook not reining in false ads—that will help people who spread false information.’” She added, “So the press has to be more vigilant; voters have to be more vigilant; social media should take more responsibility, which apparently only some will do, not all. And that’s going to be the contest.”

Clinton’s bluntness emerges throughout the docuseries. When reflecting on her attempts to reform health care as the first lady, she admits that she made “a mistake.” When talking about her 2016 primary opponent and current presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, she calls him a “career politician” who “got nothing done,” to the consternation of Sanders’s supporters. And when she discusses her loss to Donald Trump, she’s forthright. “I was totally emotionally wrecked. I felt like I let everybody down,” she says in the final episode. “I was the one who didn’t figure it out… I have to take responsibility.” This is a Clinton less guarded, showing her pain—and her pride. “I am the most investigated innocent person in America,” she jokingly laments at one point. These moments provide a stark contrast to the Clinton seen in archival footage, who trained herself to temper her reactions in public after early mishaps drew backlash. Hillary frames the Clinton of yesteryear as a woman who learned that to be taken seriously as a lawmaker, she’d have to wear a mask. She never fully removes it, of course, but in her interviews with Burstein, it occasionally slips.

Burstein and Clinton talk behind the scenes. (Jack Berner)

Sharing her thoughts out loud for hours on end seems to have been liberating for Clinton. Burstein, heard in a few scenes but never appears on camera, encourages her subject to explain why she’s been asked to answer for the same things year after year and why she’s the topic of such fervent debate—a subject Clinton has thought about endlessly. “It’s just the reality of my life,” Clinton explained to me. “I’m a historic figure because I was a part of history. I’ve tried to make a difference and to promote causes that I believe in.”

Today, she’s passionate about changing the judgmental attitudes toward female politicians, to pave the way for the next Hillary Clinton. During our conversation, Clinton grew animated while pointing out the discrepancy in how the male and female presidential candidates have been spoken about in the press. “Look, every person is imperfect, and certainly every political leader isn’t perfect,” she said, “but I don’t think women should be held to a higher standard than their male counterparts, and I don’t think that the press should continue to use gendered stereotypes in describing women … I’ve given thousands of speeches by this time in my life, and I’ve been on platforms with lots of male candidates, and they have shouted, they have beaten the podium, they have gone crazy with their hands and arms, and nobody said a thing.”

As she spoke, she waved her arms to demonstrate, her bangles jangling as she mimicked her male opponents. And then she shook her head. “A woman candidate? Her voice rises, and somehow that’s over a line.” An ever-shifting one, apparently.

For the record, Clinton does think that perceptions of female candidates have shifted for the better. She points to the 2017 Women’s March as “an emotional high” and considers her own work with Onward Together, a political funding group, as “a very positive continuation of the energy and the rejection of the kind of politics that Trump represents. So many women came to me” after 2016, she said. “They called me, and they told me I had inspired them to run.”

The docuseries ends on the same cautiously optimistic note. As Clinton talks about how she saw her loss “as the really historic turning point that lit the fuse” for women, a montage plays, showing clips of notable female politicians (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Abigail Spanberger, Donna Shalala) and Democratic presidential candidates, including Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris. It’s supposed to be galvanizing, with shots of the Women’s March meant to encourage viewers to join the movement. Clinton’s no longer alone, the scene declares.

But only one woman—Tulsi Gabbard, who doesn’t appear in the montage—remains in the race. As we talked about 2020, Burstein noted that it’s easy for younger generations to perhaps misunderstand the challenge of being a female politician. “I was 21 when [Clinton] became first lady, and recognized how unique it was that she was a first kind of first lady,” she said. “I realize that young women today come from a different mentality.” Clinton grew up in an era when women rarely appeared in politics, she explained, and as much as that’s changed, the women’s movement requires longevity to succeed.

In our conversation, Clinton hesitated only once—when she began to speak about the threats to women’s rights. “I hope people see [Hillary], yes, as my story, but as my story embedded in all the changes, particularly for women, that took place in the last half of the 20th century,” she said. “Because none of that is secure. There’s no guarantee that any of these rights that have been won and barriers that have been crossed won’t be pushed back on. I just want everybody to understand that.”

Perhaps they will, if they read between the lines. Hillary, in its candid approach, offers a sober rendering of reality and lets the audience fill in the emotional blanks. In trying to cover 70 years of history, the episodes can come off rushed, even messy, as the series hopscotches throughout time, but the strategy ultimately helps the viewer see the big picture: that for all the gains Clinton made in her career and the idealism that kept her going after every setback, her goal—for a woman to make it to the Oval Office—hasn’t been met. No one has shattered the glass ceiling she cracked. The threat to what she considers her legacy might have inspired her to tell her story again.

Hillary is a history lesson and a biopic, a celebration of and an elegy for a long political career, and most of all, a warning and an appeal to finish a job. Burstein makes the case that until a female politician can be seen as simply a politician, little will change. Maybe, Hillary hints, the question shouldn’t be whether a woman will ever be elected president. Maybe it should be why we can’t stop asking.