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Hillary – A Human Story?

Roar writer Samuel Pennifold discusses Nanette Burstein’s 2020 documentary, Hillary.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is one of the most divisive characters in modern politics; some love her and others hate her. Nanette Burstein, the director of the Hillary documentary, does her best to reflect that, editing over 2,000 hours of backstage footage from her 2016 campaign, interviews with 45 people, from school friends to senior aides, and over 35 hours of interviews with the woman herself. Burstein reflects well on the scandals and challenges faced by the Clinton family, from impropriety to the rigours of the 2016 presidential campaign. However, since Mrs Rodham Clinton had such a central role in the making of the film, many people who were once critics of her refused to take part, for fear of having to remove their comments. Newt  Grinch, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, who impeached Bill Clinton in 1998,  said he would “rather stick needles in my eyes than do the interview.”

The problem with documentaries that work with its central figures so closely is that they do not reflect the varied nature of the subject’s life. Critiques of Hillary Rodham Clinton are few and far between, the scandals of her life are glossed over; while this documentary doesn’t stretch to bias, it is rather soft.

Peter Baker, a well-respected journalist for the New York Times who had covered four presidents, was one of the few to criticise her. In his comment, he discusses Hillary Rodham Clinton’s sense that “she knows she is an ethical, moral, righteous person and therefore, you know if she decided that this is an okay thing to do then it is okay. And anybody who criticises it must be doing so for illegitimate reasons because, you know, they are partisan, there enemies… she is supremely confident in her own righteousness.”

This is a theme that almost carries across all four of the hour-long episodes: that every stumble and every low is always someone else’s fault, either the public who criticises her for no reason, or unfavourable media. A lot of this is due to the rampant and engrained sexism that exists among politics, though it is not all. Many have raised genuine concerns about her politics throughout her career, especially Bernie Sanders as a 2016 democratic nominee.

One of the few instances of Hillary showing emotion in her interviews – other than the poor attempts at intimacy with camera shots of her prepping for interviews with Burstein – comes as she riles against Bernie Sanders and his attacks on the sources of her campaign donations in 2016, as well as her paid speaking work for various corporate associations after her time as Secretary of State in the Obama administration.

The shining moment of reflection comes when the documentary moves back in time to Hillary’s speech at the fourth annual World Conference on Women in 1995. The famous and moving speech she gave on women’s rights as human rights shows her true steel, and a willingness to stand up to anyone of any gender, both home and abroad. It’s a moment that might resonate with many – as it isn’t too far a stretch to draw comparisons with another love-or-hate female character in politics: the former British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher. Both women were for turning.

The documentary does cover a lot of ground effectively. Whilst it may do this from a single perspective, there is nothing wrong with this angle. Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks openly and frankly about the challenges she faced as a woman in law, politics, and public life. The focus on her role as a leader and inspiration for generations of women in America and across the globe is the highlight of the film.

What the documentary does best is telling a story of the motoric rise of one of the most influential figures in American and global politics. It is not a narrative on Hillary Rodham Clinton, the wife of former president Bill Clinton; it is a human story of Hillary Rodham Clinton, an extremely successful lawyer, Senator, Secretary of State, and former Presidential Candidate.

Whilst some may call this documentary an example of biased storytelling, at no point did it promise not to be that way. It honours the success of a woman against all odds, which is something to be celebrated. It isn’t a complete history, or a rounded history, but a reflection on the part of history that tells us the human story of a woman who might have not achieved all that she wanted to achieve, or changed the world; but she has inspired the next generation to do just that.


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