“Hillary,” Hulu’s four-part documentary about Hillary Clinton, came out of 2,000 hours of footage shot during her 2016 presidential campaign, 35 hours of fresh interviews with the subject herself and a bevy of archival material that filmmaker Nanette Burstein found while researching the project.
When Burstein had a version of the movie that was close to locked, she sent it to Clinton at her home in Chappaqua, N.Y., where she watched it in a single sitting. As you might expect, taking it all in, Clinton says, chuckling, was an “overwhelming experience.”
“It’s daunting to watch your life unfold on the screen,” Clinton says. She’s on the phone, along with Burstein, in early June, as America continues to reel from the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests following the police killing of George Floyd.
Clinton understands the despair that drives the protests and pervades the country in the wake of more than 120,000 (and counting) pandemic deaths and months of economic hardship.
But she also sees signs for cautious optimism.
“If you look at the young people who are the primary movers of the peaceful protests in response to Mr. Floyd’s killing, I’m hopeful that this can break open not only some hearts but some structural impediments to equality and justice in a way that defies the distraction of the second-to-second demands of social media,” Clinton says.
“And it may well be that a leader like [Donald] Trump, who depends upon distraction, has finally been brought down to earth because people are watching in real time what is happening and how inadequate his response has been to these historic moments.”
Over the course of a quick 45 minutes, we discussed the news, the documentary and the ways the two intersect.
Were there things in the documentary that surprised you? Maybe the footage of your daughter Chelsea putting herself between you and Bill, holding both your hands, “filling in the empty space,” as Bill puts it, that existed after he addressed the nation about his relationship with Monica Lewinski?
Clinton: That was one of those moments that I remembered but I hadn’t seen the footage for years until I saw the movie. Watching it again was pretty emotional. I had no idea Chelsea was going to do that.
Nanette found things, like me being burned in effigy when I was working for healthcare, that I had forgotten about. And I have to say, I was struck again about how trying to get people universal healthcare could be whipped up into such a frenzy. That was kind of a moment.
Burstein: I thought that clip was iconic of where our country is at right now, so divided. That’s what made me passionate as a filmmaker, understanding the antecedents to when partisan politics became so entrenched.
The documentary ends on a positive tenor, noting the number of women elected to Congress in 2018 and with you saying that maybe your loss will be remembered as a turning point that lit the fuse. Rewatching it, the phrase “lit the fuse” hit me in a much different way.
Clinton: I can understand that. I’ve had people contact me about the documentary, and it’s interesting because people who watched it early had a different take than people who watched it recently.
So much of what we’re seeing now, sadly, was known about Trump and the kind of people who were loyal to him. But it turned out to be even worse than what I thought it would be. Despite having my own front-row seat and being concerned about his character and behavior, he has gone further and broken more norms and undermined our institutions more deeply than I thought would have been possible in such a short period of time.
We see you in the movie at his inauguration, showing up, taking a deep breath and worrying that he wouldn’t rise to the occasion.
Clinton: Whathas been so surprising to me is how he can barely make an effort to rise to the occasion. I truly don’t think he can get out of his own way. Everything has to be all about him. If it’s about a terrible pandemic with an unprecedented virus, he tries to ignore it, tries to keep the attention on himself. Then when it becomes impossible to do that, he tries to seize the moment and turn it into a daily rally, like he loves to do. And then when it becomes impossible to ignore, he tries to change the subject; he tries to withdraw from the spotlight so he can come up with some other diversion and distraction for the body politic and the press.
Then when we have a terrible killing like we did in Minneapolis, he makes some steps toward — in the very early hours after we all saw that horrific video — to look like he’s going to be empathetic, to look like he’s going to try to talk about this stripping bare of the continuing racism and inequities of law enforcement and the justice system. And then he pivots again because he’s not comfortable doing that. He doesn’t have even the minor amount of empathy to fake it, to look like he is concerned, and he reverts to the belligerence and the threat-making and the photo-opping, all the tried-and-true tactics that feed his need for control and dominance and attention.
You tweeted about his recent photo op, when troops used tear gas to clear protesters so Trump could walk to St. John’s Church and hold up a Bible, calling it a “horrifying use of presidential power.” What was that like to watch?
Clinton: It was beyond my comprehension. We have never seen anything like this. He is without shame. It is a mystery why anybody with a beating heart and a working mind still supports him.
You mentioned the inauguration. I’d been to every inauguration since 1993, and I had a really hard time going to that one, but I thought, “OK. The moment might very well transform him, and the awesome responsibility of the office as well.” And yet I heard him get up and give that speech that was the absolute opposite of anything that could have brought the country together. Politics should be about addition, about finding common ground. No, he was speaking to his outraged base.
And in the movie, I say, I was sitting next to George W. Bush — who has now spoken out twice, trying to provide some ballast in this time we’re going through, which I appreciate, despite my political disagreements with him — and he just turned to me and said, “That was some weird [stuff].” And every single day has been a surprise, an unpleasant surprise, about how there seems to be no bottom to this man and his presidency.
“Hillary” documents the media’s gender bias in your presidential campaigns. How do you think the women running for president this year were treated?
It was a very mixed picture. On the one hand, we had more women running, which was a big positive because then you could see that women, just like men, had different styles, different approaches, different platforms. And yet at the same time, there were still some of the same tropes and attitudes being expressed about women becoming president and what kind of person could beat Donald Trump and all of the usual questioning. It was a step forward, but not as big a step as I wish it had been.
Watching those clips in the movie, men screaming, “Iron my shirt,” or John Edwards saying, “I’m not sure about that coat” during a debate, made me crazy. Did you ever come close to snapping?
We all have that choice. You can escalate or you can try to take a deep breath and deal with it thoughtfully. I believe strongly in what I think is right. And I am willing to stand up for it. But I’m not interested in engaging in some kind of verbal confrontation for the sake of delivering a flashpoint.
What’s fascinating to me is the thoughtful, deliberate response or the careful thinking before you speak is somehow viewed as less authentic than the blowing up. And we’ve seen the result of that now, sadly, for 3½ years, someone who doesn’t have the discipline, someone who doesn’t care what he says because he came from reality TV. He was a bankrupt businessman who got a second wind because he could scream at people, “You’re fired.”