Since losing the 2016 election to Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton has released a memoir about that defeat, launched a political action committee and penned another book about “gutsy women” with her daughter, Chelsea. But Clinton’s most prominent return to the public eye has come at the Sundance Film Festival, where the former Secretary of State unveiled a candid four-hour documentary series, “Hillary.”
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Clinton is aware that some thought she would slink away after 2016.
“Yes, they did, didn’t they?” Clinton said in an interview in Park City. “Well, that was never an option.”
Nanette Burstein’s “Hillary,” which Hulu will debut March 6, is a more direct and long-form portrait of Clinton than has ever been done on camera. You might say it’s a bid for Clinton to reassert her legacy, to tell the story of a career and life that, she feels, has often been distorted by scrutiny, notoriety and scandal.
Still, Clinton isn’t ready to contemplate her legacy. What she does think is important is situating her story in a larger narrative.
“What Nanette does really well is to place my story in the larger arc of women’s lives, women’s history, women’s movement, and also the political system,” said Clinton, speaking alongside Burstein. “It seems to me that part of the reason I became controversial is because I was thrust into the public spotlight as a different kind of first lady.
“And particularly when I took on the work of health care reform, trying to get us to universal, affordable health care, I was being burned in effigy, which I had forgotten,” Clinton said. “But she found footage of it, which says more about the times and the expectations about what women and certainly first ladies should or shouldn’t do.”
Clinton’s return to the spotlight, in the midst of a competitive Democratic primary, has already caused waves. In the documentary, she disparages Sen. Bernie Sanders, saying, “Nobody likes him. Nobody wants to work with him.” It’s a small moment — 15 seconds, Clinton points out — from some 35 hours of conversation recorded more than a year ago when she wasn’t thinking about the 2020 election. She was thinking about the 2016 election.
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“I will do whatever I can to support that person, because that wasn’t my experience in 2016,” says Clinton, adding that she will “absolutely” endorse a Democratic candidate at some point.
Though Clinton stumped for Barack Obama after he won the nomination on delegates (but, Clinton reminds, not in votes), Sanders’ support for Clinton, she feels, was minimal after their race.
“That didn’t happen in 2016,” said Clinton. “And I’m just trying to sound the alarm that we need to unify if we’re going to defeat Donald Trump and what he stands for and the danger he poses to undoing so much of what we as a nation have achieved through lots of struggle over 235 years.”
That Sanders has become the most headline-grabbing part of “Hillary” is ironic. For Burstein, one of the focal points of “Hillary” is to not only represent Clinton as a human being, rather than a political caricature, but to contextualize her, and the polarizing effect she has inspired, in the politics of gender.
“There is this criticism that she’s always known and calculated that she’s going to be president. Which, A, is not a bad thing, and, B, is actually not true,” Burstein said. “There is an interview in the film with one of her colleagues at Yale Law School who says in in the early 70s the idea that a woman could be president was just so off the radar.”
At Sundance, Clinton has been a regular presence. She attended the premiere of the Jamal Khasshoggi documentary “The Dissident,” which she calls terrific. Experiencing a film festival, she says, has been thrilling.
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But Clinton’s mind is mainly on the upcoming election. One of her chief concerns is that the vote won’t be carried out properly.
“It is a concern because once the Supreme Court gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, they took away one of the most useful tools for holding states and local jurisdictions accountable for what they did around elections,” Clinton said. “And I was the first candidate running for president on the Democratic side who faced both the gutting of the Voting Rights Act and Citizens United. So I saw firsthand the concerted effort to purge voters and suppress voters. That’s still going on.”
Clinton, who beat Trump in the popular vote, favors the abolition of the Electoral College. “The person who gets the most votes should win,” she said. “The Electoral College is an anachronism that foils the rights of the majority of Americans to choose our leaders.”
Clinton also cited the role of social media platforms and, in particular, Facebook, in a potential repeat of Russian interference.
“The attacks on the fundamental right to vote and run our elections free from illegal, unconstitutional and certainly foreign interference is going to be even more sophisticated today than it was four years ago,” Clinton said.
But Clinton does think some things have changed in the last four years, especially for Trump.
“I think there’s a story now to be told. Before he was a blank slate. He was a guy that people saw on their TVs. As you know, he was a reality TV star,” Clinton said. “Now I think there’s a record that he’s going to have to be held accountable for.”
In “Hillary,” all questions were on the table, Burstein says. Clinton grants that “Hillary” isn’t something she ever expected to do.
“I am a little bit surprised to be sitting here talking about a documentary of four hours about my life and my times,” said Clinton, laughing. “But I’m really glad I did it. I am incredibly grateful. But I also think a lot of what’s in it is relevant to today.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article