There is a melancholy fascination to Nanette Burstein’s sympathetic and respectful documentary interview with the enduringly opaque Hillary Rodham Clinton. It will be broadcast by Hulu in the US in four parts, like a good-energy inversion of David Frost’s four-part conversation with Richard Nixon, and presented as a 252-minute special at the Berlin film festival.
Burstein structures her narrative like a Hollywood movie, in a series of flashbacks from the unfolding tragicomic drama of the presidential election campaign. It takes us back to Clinton’s childhood, her time at Wellesley College and Yale Law School (where she met Bill), her time as the governor’s wife, as the president’s wife with the attendant issues – Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky, the three-strikes controversy – her time as New York senator in the new millennium and then her fateful tilts at the White House. As the past starts to converge with the present, there is a confluence of bad omens: her tense concession speech when Barack Obama beat her for the 2008 presidential ticket sounds like a rehearsal for the horrible real thing of 2016.
Clinton is interviewed on camera about her spectacular career in public life, which ended with that failure that is any politician’s birthright – the humiliating defeat at the hands of Donald Trump. She also speaks about the decades of misogynist abuse that she has had to absorb, mostly in an era when you had to toughen up and never admit to being hurt. Clinton remembers all this with good grace and good humour, and with that folksy, teacherly-grandmotherly chuckle she cultivated to ward off unpleasantness. (Her voice has changed over the years; Burstein finds TV footage of interviews she gave when Bill Clinton was governor in Arkansas, and she sounded a lot more down-home, promising to “work as haaahd as uh cay-un”.)
She stays even-tempered, except when she talks about how Bill had to admit to her the truth about Lewinsky in the late 90s and how their daughter, Chelsea, kept their marriage together. Bill is interviewed, and Obama makes a gracious contribution. Hillary never sounds angry about Trump, but comes close to revealing her contemptuous rage at Bernie Sanders, whom she clearly regards as a populist poseur.
There are no actual omissions in Burstein’s documentary, although Sanders conspiracists may complain that there is no examination of possible bias in the way the Democratic contender was chosen in 2016. But Burstein does not ask about Clinton’s acquaintance with Trump in the days when he was a celebrity Democratic supporter, and shies away from asking about the incident in September 2016 when Clinton appeared to faint when leaving the 9/11 memorial service. It might have been interesting to hear more about the personal toll of electioneering, the 18-hour days and seven-day weeks. Everyone could sympathise with that.
What emerges from Burstein’s film is that Clinton found herself surrounded by a non-partisan, Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of populism, attacked by Trump from the right and Sanders from the left – and there is anecdotal evidence that once Clinton had won the ticket some young feel-the-Berners went over to Trump to protest at the establishment. And establishment is undoubtedly what Clinton is. Tellingly, in an early remark, she says an inspiration was Bobby Kennedy, as opposed to John Kennedy: the family member put in an unelected position of power. Incredibly, her male opponents could claim insurgent-underdog status. Bill Clinton made his way in the scrappy business of politics by selling himself and pushing and pleading for power. Not Hillary. She won office as New York senator on her own merits and did perfectly well, but by then had acquired the reputation and mannerisms of entitlement.
In 2016, she was somehow too late (because Obama had used up all the oxygen) and too soon (because the media and governing classes were still unready for another step change). The political ground had changed beneath Clinton’s feet. Trump had mastered the new languages of reality TV, celebrity and social media – and mainstream media were hypnotised by his quasi-fascist bullying and ratings boosting. And, beyond anything Clinton might say about policy, there was unemployment and stagnation and a huge constituency of angry people out there, targeted by the data occultists, people who could be made to believe almost anything on a smoke-without-fire basis and feel it was time for a grassroots Kulturkampf against liberals.
Watching this documentary, I felt that Clinton should perhaps have had Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s life and career. Clinton could have been a supreme court justice by now – and a popular heroine into the bargain, with HRC T-shirts and buttons and comic books – making a real difference to policy, living a happy and incrementally successful life, without having to beg for votes and without having to endure the insults of bullies and sexists and idiots. There is still a reticence to Clinton, an obvious reluctance to say anything that could be used against her or against the Democrats in the 2020 campaign. But opening up is simply not her style.