Review: Sundance 2020: ‘Hillary’ film takes on scandal allegations, bias and, yes, Bernie too

Kate McKinnon, left, preparing to impersonate Hillary Clinton, right, on "Saturday Night Live."
(Barbara Kinney/Hulu)

She lost the election, but Hillary Clinton returns the victor in Hulu’s four-part docuseries “Hillary.”

The former secretary of State, New York senator and U.S. first lady tells her own story here, countering much of the political spin and media misinformation that’s defined her public persona in a sit-down interview that serves as the central narrative of “Hillary.”

Expect outrage from her right-wing detractors and cheers from her fans when this persuasive and brisk four-hour series by documentarian Nanette Burstein (“The Kid Stays in the Picture”) debuts this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival ahead of its Hulu premiere in March.


Clinton, 72, convincingly reframes her life and legacy in “Hillary,” scraping off the tar and feathers from countless smear campaigns with the help of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who’s also featured prominently . Their accounts of everything from Vince Foster to Monica Lewinsky to the infamous “nasty woman” debate with Donald Trump are accompanied by ample news clips and footage from her four decades in the public eye (Clinton provided the filmmaker with 2,000 hours of video from the 2016 campaign trail alone).

Former aides, political peers and rivals, as well as the press, are featured here. Noticeably absent are her critics (Burstein, who says she had complete creative control, reportedly asked Newt Gingrich if he’d participate, to which he reportedly replied that he’d “rather stick needles in [his] eyes than do the interview”).

“Hillary” doesn’t disguise itself as some sort of balanced expose, as if such a thing even exists. It sets out, and succeeds, in telling the motivating, painful and redemptive story of a polarizing figure who has generated backlash and excitement in equal measure.

Spanning from her idyllic childhood in a Chicago suburb to her earnest activism at Wellesley College to tumult at the White House to the battle of 2016, it paints the picture of a whip-smart woman whose candor and ambition both alienated and inspired.

She broke boundaries as the first female partner in the Little Rock, Ark., Rose Law Firm, an achievement that drew considerable heat when she became the wife of an elected official. As the spouse of then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham was scrutinized and even demonized for having a career and for keeping her own last name. She was too cold, too hard, too serious. She needed to smile more and talk less about policy. She should wear more makeup and soften the hairdo, be more like this and less like that.

It was the beginning of a lifetime of unfair scrutiny, much of it unfair and rooted in a systemic gender bias. Rivals of the Clintons and the Democratic Party fanned the flames for political gain, Bill further damaged her image with his infidelity (he cries here when talking about how badly he hurt her during the Lewinsky scandal), ensuring that Clinton would always struggle to hit the right notes with the press and the public.

“I couldn’t figure out, what is it they want from me,” says Clinton, whose frank admissions and biting humor throughout the series shed light on the frustrations and absurd situations she faced as the first woman to run for the office in a presidential election.

Jennifer Palmieri, former director of communications for Clinton‘s 2016 campaign, recalls random folks telling Clinton what she should wear to be more likable, what her voice should sound like, how she should stand at the podium. “[I’d say] if you could tell her a woman on the world stage who does it perfectly, then she could emulate that person … but no one ever had an answer for who that woman is.”

But out of that lopsided playing field, Clinton emerged as a feminist role model, celebrated by a Pantsuit Nation of women who were fed up by discrimination and bias as usual. The series makes the point that her loss at the polls would help trigger a new feminist wave — from the Women’s March to record-breaking numbers of females elected in the 2018 midterm elections.

But what’s made the news so far about this forthcoming documentary? Conflict and controversy. Critical comments Clinton makes about Sen. Bernie Sanders are of course the first thing the public has been treated to regarding “Hillary.”

“Hillary” is full of moments dedicated to deconstructing the far-right mantra that Clinton is a font of corruption. One by one she debunks the scandals and investigations that have long obsessed the media and served the Republican cause — the death of Vince Foster, the missing emails, Benghazi.

“I’m the most investigated innocent person in America,” she jokes.

The Crooked Hillary tag bestowed on her by Trump may have cost her the presidency, and given rise to the most corrupt White House in modern history. “Here is what I want people to understand,” she says. “Even when something is disproved, people remember the allegation was made ... that kind of constant character assault takes a toll. Even people who are supporters [and] friends, they brush it off. They don’t believe it. But it still has a little space in the back of their heads, so if something else happens, that space gets a little bigger. That’s been the story of my public life.”

But guess what? She persists: “At the end of the day, I’ve loved and been loved, and all the rest is background music. I have no regrets.”


Where: Hulu
When: Any time, starting Friday, March 6
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)