In ‘Hillary,’ Clinton candidly surveys her ups and downs

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton attends the premiere of “Hillary” at The Ray Theatre during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — Since losing the 2016 election to Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton has released a memoir about that defeat, launched a political action committee and penned another book about “gutsy women” with her daughter, Chelsea. But Clinton’s most prominent return to the public eye has come in the form of a new candid four-hour documentary series.

Some, Clinton is aware, thought she would slink away after 2016.

“Yes, they did, didn’t they?”says Clinton. “Well, that was never an option.”

Nanette Burstein’s “Hillary,” which Hulu will debut Friday, is a more direct and long-form portrait of Clinton than has ever been done on camera. You might say it’s a bid for Clinton to reassert her legacy, to tell the story of a career and life that, she feels, has often been falsely distorted.

Still, Clinton isn’t ready to contemplate her legacy. What she thinks important is situating her story in a larger narrative.

“What Nanette does really well is to place my story in the larger arc of women’s lives, women’s history, women’s movement, and also the political system,” said Clinton, speaking alongside Burstein, in an interview at the Sundance Film Festival in January. “It seems to me that part of the reason I became controversial is because I was thrust into the public spotlight as a different kind of first lady.

“And particularly when I took on the work of health care reform, trying to get us to universal, affordable health care, I was being burned in effigy, which I had forgotten,” Clinton said. “But she found footage of it, which says more about the times and the expectations about what women and certainly first ladies should or shouldn’t do.”

Clinton’s return to the spotlight, in the midst of a competitive Democratic primary, has already caused waves. In the documentary, she disparages Sen. Bernie Sanders, saying, “Nobody likes him. Nobody wants to work with him.” It’s a small moment — 15 seconds, Clinton points out — from some 35 hours of conversation recorded more than a year ago when she wasn’t thinking about the 2020 election. She was thinking about the 2016 election.

“I will do whatever I can to support that person, because that wasn’t my experience in 2016,” says Clinton.

Though Clinton stumped for Barack Obama after he won the nomination on delegates (but, Clinton reminds, not in votes), Sanders’ support for Clinton, she feels, was minimal after their race.

“That didn’t happen in 2016,” said Clinton. “And I’m just trying to sound the alarm that we need to unify if we’re going to defeat Donald Trump and what he stands for and the danger he poses to undoing so much of what we as a nation have achieved through lots of struggle over 235 years.”

That Sanders has become the most headline-grabbing part of “Hillary” is ironic. For Burstein, one of the focal points of “Hillary” is to not only represent Clinton as a human being, rather than a political caricature, but to contextualize her, and the polarizing effect she has inspired, in the politics of gender.

“There is this criticism that she’s always known and calculated that she’s going to be president. Which, A, is not a bad thing, and, B, is actually not true,” Burstein said. “There is an interview in the film with one of her colleagues at Yale Law School who says in in the early 70s the idea that a woman could be president was just so off the radar.”

Clinton’s mind, at least in January, was mainly on the upcoming election. She said she’ll “absolutely” endorse a candidate, but hasn’t done so yet. One of her chief concerns is that the vote won’t be carried out properly.

“It is a concern because once the Supreme Court gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, they took away one of the most useful tools for holding states and local jurisdictions accountable for what they did around elections,” Clinton said. “And I was the first candidate running for president on the Democratic side who faced both the gutting of the Voting Rights Act and Citizens United. So I saw firsthand the concerted effort to purge voters and suppress voters. That’s still going on.”

Clinton, who beat Trump in the popular vote, favors the abolition of the Electoral College. “The person who gets the most votes should win,” she said. “The Electoral College is an anachronism that foils the rights of the majority of Americans to choose our leaders.”

Clinton also cited the role of social media platforms and, in particular, Facebook, in a potential repeat of Russian interference.

“The attacks on the fundamental right to vote and run our elections free from illegal, unconstitutional and certainly foreign interference is going to be even more sophisticated today than it was four years ago,” Clinton said.

“Hillary” includes other voices, including some critical commentators (although Burnstein says most right-wing politicians declined to participate). Along with a survey of Clinton’s life, it spends copious amounts of time on the 2016 election and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. That section includes Bill Clinton voicing his regrets, as well as Clinton saying she didn’t speak to her husband for weeks after he admitted the affair.

Clinton, who earlier revisited the 2016 election in her 2017 memoir “What Happened,” also analyzes that crushing defeat. The 2020 election, though, she thinks will be different.

“I think there’s a story now to be told. Before he was a blank slate. He was a guy that people saw on their TVs. As you know, he was a reality TV star,” Clinton said. “Now I think there’s a record that he’s going to have to be held accountable for.”

In “Hillary,” all questions were on the table, Burstein said. Clinton grants she never expected to star in her own documentary.

“I am a little bit surprised to be sitting here talking about a documentary of four hours about my life and my times,” said Clinton, laughing. “But I’m really glad I did it. I am incredibly grateful. But I also think a lot of what’s in it is relevant to today.”

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