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The 'Hillary' documentary on Hulu feels painful, relevant after Elizabeth Warren's withdrawal

Americans’ attitude toward Hillary Clinton was described in the flick as “be our champion, go away.” It doesn't feel like much changed in four years.
Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen - Season 17
Hillary Clinton joins host Andy Cohen on "Watch Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen" on Bravo.Charles Sykes / Bravo

“Hillary”— Nanette Burstein’s four-part documentary which began streaming Friday on Hulu — probably felt very differently to audiences when it premiered Jan. 25 at Sundance than it does this week. Though at that point, three — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Marianne Williamson — of the six women who had been historically vying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination were already out of the race, “Klomentum” was yet on the horizon for Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and her piles of plans were still holding strong, along with her superhuman energy and patience for countless selfies.

What a difference six weeks can make; what sweet summer babes we all were.

By the time I sat down to watch the last hour of the 253-minute documentary Thursday morning, Warren had just announced she was dropping out of the presidential race; like a lot of women, I was devastated. And in a matter of minutes — through no fault of its own — “Hillary” became immediately, painfully relevant all over again.

Former consultant and media adviser Mandy Grunwald inadvertently provided the title for that fourth, and most harrowing, hour of the documentary when she described Americans’ attitude toward Hillary Clinton as “Be our champion, go away.”

It seemed like there were lots of voters who claimed in 2016 that they would have been happy to vote for another woman — just not Clinton. In fact, they rather liked that whip-smart senator from Massachusetts in the sensible sweaters, what’s her name, Warren? They’d totally vote for her.

But as it turns out, there’s really no way for a woman to modulate her behavior in a way that enough Americans will currently deem her electable.

So it is hard to watch “Hillary,” even if you like her, but not for the reasons you think. Culled from 2,000 hours of campaign footage from Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, archival footage from her life and personal interviews with Hillary, Bill and Chelsea Clinton, their advisers and friends and even President Barack Obama, “Hillary” illustrates in vivid detail the extraordinary, complicated and flawed human who is loved, and viscerally — almost inexplicably so — loathed in rather stunning amounts.

It’s hard to watch a woman succeed in so many ways and be faced with that sort of manic hatred. It is disconcerting to watch her come prepared with facts and plans to a political event and still be bested by a game show host whose lies are nearly impossible to keep track of. It makes your skin crawl to watch a successful woman be heckled by a 20-something doofus bearing a sign instructing her to iron his shirt, or make him a sandwich.

It is enraging realizing that all of the insults just blur together after a while.

I had a physical reaction watching footage from the debate on Oct. 9, 2016, when Trump’s body language became increasingly threatening toward Clinton. It felt like anything could happen when it aired live; I was terrified then I would witness violence on live television, if only because it felt like people might well have cheered it.

“He was stalking me, he was leering over me, he was sort of preening like an alpha male,” Clinton said in the documentary. “I knew he was doing it. I was well aware of it. So I was trying to figure out, what do I do? If I wheeled around and said, ‘Back up, you creep. You’re not going to intimidate me,’ would I sound angry? And would people recoil from that? Because all he’s doing is just standing there.”

But anyone who’s been on the receiving end of that sort of mental and physical intimidation knows exactly what Trump was doing both to Clinton and the people watching. And even in the middle of it, she was still calculating how she could possibly respond in a way that wouldn’t give her enemies even more ammunition with which to attack her as the one in the wrong.

I know Clinton isn’t perfect; even her fans can and should acknowledge, for instance, her contribution to Bill Clinton’s 1994 “three strikes” law, when she referred to gang members as "super-predators” or her vote in favor of a terrible bankruptcy reform legislation as a senator. (Burstein does ask her about the three-strikes law and “super-predators,” but these topics are given short shrift.)

The problem is that the things voters hold against her most — like staying married to her husband after his many infidelities, including with Monica Lewinsky — aren’t rooted in policy. They’re rooted in sexist double standards for how women “should” react, as Clinton understood on that long-ago debate stage, as Trump leered over her shoulder.

In the documentary, Cheryl Mills, who was counselor and chief of staff during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, described hosting small meetings with women in the New York City suburbs when Clinton first ran for office, calling them “Hillary-hater sessions,” where she’d ask guests why they didn’t want to vote for her. “It would just be like you were watching ‘The Exorcist,’ and the bile would come spewing up,” she said.

It might not have been exactly the same with Warren, but after a season of snake emojis and accusations that she and she alone was trying to tank the progressive revolution, it sure started to feel familiar.

Why do we expect our female politicians to be perfect, and also perfectly ambition-less? Why can’t they just be human? Our standards for male behavior — even male presidential behavior — are lower than the current Dow; we ought to at least be able to be as mediocre as them and still have a chance at winning.

“Hillary,” at least, ends on a note of hope, showing us protests and colorful signs and those ubiquitous pink, pointy-eared hats from 2017, as well as clips of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and the other women who snagged historic 2018 wins in the House (as seen in Netflix’s doc “Knock Down the House”). Even Clinton talked about how she had grasped for a glimmer of hope after a loss — her loss — that she said felt “just like a death.”

“What I loved was the reaction to the loss and the resistance that grew up because of it,” Clinton told Burstein’s camera.

“Maybe people will see it as the really historic turning point that lit the fuse. So we just have to keep pushing it forward,” she added later.

And after this week, it’s a little further out than perhaps even Clinton thought when she started filming.