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‘Hillary’ Film Review: Hulu Doc Offers a Rich, Layered Look at a Life of Political Ambition

Nanette Burstein’s four-part portrait of Hillary Clinton offers an in-depth look for supporters and detractors alike

Literal volumes have been written about Hillary Clinton — her accomplishments, controversies and contradictions — and if Nanette Burstein’s documentary “Hillary” is to be believed, all of them are at least partially correct.

By itself, Clinton’s life and legacy offer a Rorschach test for the last 40 years of geopolitics, gender roles and social mores. But Burstein’s film examines both her actions and the world’s reactions through a uniquely humanistic perspective, simultaneously setting up an intimate look at a person everyone thinks they know, and an almost “Forrest Gump”-esque chronicle of decades of social change filtered through her own accomplishments and setbacks.

Told over four meticulously-researched hours (quartered for broadcasting on Hulu), “Hillary” sympathetically looks at Clinton as an everywoman of the Baby Boomer generation, required to manage and accommodate the expectations of the world around her, while trying to navigate her own evolving aspirations. In the 1960s, she was a bra-burning feminist whose fight for social change was regarded as adorable (if at all) by male colleagues and counterparts. In the ’70s and ’80s, she made an uneasy peace playing surrogate and supporter to husband Bill, while carving out quiet accomplishments in the background of his ambitions.

The 1990s demanded more of the same, along with more scrutiny after Bill defeated George H.W. Bush in 1992, ushering in a literal new generation of public servants as well as an explosive increase in their coverage by the media. The Whitewater “scandal,” Bill’s liaison with Monica Lewinsky, Hillary’s Benghazi controversy, and both of her campaigns for president get explored in detail that might seem cruel if she herself and those within her closest circle at the time of each event weren’t providing a running commentary about what was true, what wasn’t, and what it all meant for one of the world’s most identifiable women.

Notwithstanding the chapter divides for each hourlong segment, Burstein’s transitions from one topic to the next are absolutely seamless; though she frames Clinton’s biography with a timeline of her 2016 Presidential run, the documentarian shifts from distant to recent past and back again so skillfully that it takes a moment to remember how as a viewer you went from, say, the second debate with Trump to her ’90s healthcare campaign even as it all congeals into a meaningful whole.

At the same time, the seeming completeness of Burstein’s portrait affords opportunities both to see different sides of this very public figure and to reinforce long-held perceptions at the same time, in the service of the inevitable conclusion that all of Clinton’s various parts add up to more and less than the whole you’re imagining.

Burstein’s fortune is to some degree the former secretary of state’s bad luck, because not only did the filmmaker receive hundreds of hours of footage from the ’16 campaign trail, but she also uncovered literal decades’ worth of archival footage of her subject giving speeches and making public appearances. Consequently, there are inevitable contradictions about matters of language, policy and position, the sort of thing that would highlight the practiced duplicity of a politician in more manipulative hands.

But Burstein uses those juxtapositions to reveal the opposite: Clinton’s vulnerability even as she’s attempting to explain, contain or repair a situation. That she occasionally turns combative in debates or interviews — a quality undoubtedly celebrated in a male counterpart — is a reflection of the lifelong struggle to assert her strength and identity, and also to do so in a way that’s conciliatory or unthreatening to a judgmental public.

Further to that end, the film also shrewdly (if not too subtly) offers a referendum on politicians or public figures’ relationship with the media in an era of the 24-hour news cycle. She and Bill weren’t just the first Boomers to take the highest office in the land, they were also the first politicians to achieve such a high level of success at a time when news coverage became ubiquitous and merciless, willing to repeat and rehash and speculate about choices both good and bad until they become abstractions, just to fill air time. The likes of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove actively turned politics into gamesmanship for their own destructive gain, but the media transformed that into public entertainment, and the Clintons were forced into a dubious “stardom” they couldn’t escape or, as they quickly learned, control for very long.

Hour Three, “The Hardest Decision,” is really where contemporary audiences will either most strongly identify with Clinton’s journey or step away from Burstein’s portrait, as it explores controversies more recent, and relevant, to world events. But like a focus group that was actually once held to litigate her likeability, “Hillary” sorts through everything that fans or critics know about in order to make them just plain understand her better. How must it feel to spend one’s whole life repressing your own goals in order to support someone else’s, or worse, to satisfy the limitations of entrenched, outdated beliefs? Or to adapt to the world’s expectations, only for it to judge and punish you for doing so?

The Clintons, like most politicians, are complex figures, driven by forces both inside and around them. But as a man, Bill at least had the luxury of defining his own path. Hillary’s, for better or often for worse, was shaped by what the world thought she could or should achieve. Entering the public consciousness at the moment that she did, her greatest accomplishment was being a woman who accepted that her ambition was exceptional so that when time and opportunity came for others to follow in her footsteps, theirs wouldn’t be.

Suffice it to say it’s hard to encapsulate a person who not only impacted so many lives but also evoked so many different responses from the world for her ambition. But, at the very least, “Hillary” gives both her critics and defenders a fuller portrait to draw upon for their opinions.