PARK CITY, Utah ― Nearly 22 years ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton was blindsided when her husband, then President Bill Clinton, came into their room, sat down on the bed and confessed to having an affair with a 20-something White House intern named Monica Lewinsky ― a scandal that had been splashed across headlines for seven and a half months.
“I told her exactly what happened, when it happened,” Bill Clinton says in the new Hulu four-part docuseries “Hillary,” which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday and will be released on the site on March 6. “I said, ‘I have no defenses. This is inexcusable, what I did.’”
This is by far the most open Bill and Hillary Clinton have been about the situation that nearly ended their 22-year marriage in August 1998. “Hillary” director Nanette Burstein told The Hollywood Reporter that the couple was willing to recount the experience in separate interviews, due to its significance in Hillary’s personal life, which the docuseries explores in-depth.
“The reason why the Monica story was important to me was not just for the sake of it being salaciously interesting to people,” the filmmaker said, “but because [Hillary’s] always been judged by it.”
“Hillary” follows the 72-year-old’s political trajectory, touching on everything from her rousing commencement speech at her graduation from Wellesley ― a breakout moment where she introduced her long-term goal of “making what appears to be impossible possible” ― to how she and her team dealt with the 2015 controversy over her use of a personal email server as secretary of state.
Including interviews with friends, colleagues, campaign managers, reporters and political figures like her former opponent and subsequent boss President Barack Obama, the docuseries paints Hillary Clinton in an exceedingly favorable light as someone who would stop at nothing to pave a path for a woman to one day become president of the United States. As for the critique that she’s “inauthentic,” Clinton concludes that it’s been hard to be herself in a world where her trust has been exploited and double standards reign supreme.
“Going through this gauntlet of unbelievable obstacles, yeah, you know, you get scarred up a little bit,” she says in the opening moments of the series, before “Take Back the Power” by The Interrupters begins playing.
It’s this type of moment Burstein excels at: taking footage of Hillary’s presidential campaigns, her family life, her political mishaps, and weaving it all into a stunning story of feminism, failure and fight.
One of the more eye-opening moments of the series involves Hillary’s heartbreak at the Lewinsky news. With pain in her eyes, she admits she was shocked by the extramarital relationship and says she was “just devastated” that Bill would lie to her. Colleagues who were interviewed also said that, despite reports claiming otherwise, Hillary did not know about the affair prior to Bill’s confession. (While that may be true, one can’t help but consider that she at least knew of Bill’s inappropriate behavior, after Juanita Broaddrick’s rape allegation, an alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones’ sexual harassment accusations. “Hillary” mentions those incidents, but doesn’t examine them with the same level of detail as, say, A&E’s recent six-part docuseries, “The Clinton Affair.”)
What viewers do learn is, despite her anger, Hillary sided with her husband during the impeachment process due to the fact that she “didn’t think [the affair] was an impeachable offense.” The series presents this as evidence of her commitment to the Constitution, casting the choice as Hillary putting the well-being of Americans ahead of her own marriage.
As Cheryl Mills, who was deputy White House counsel in the Clinton administration, explains, “She chose to compartmentalize, to say, ‘I might want to kill my husband, but I don’t want the country to have to lose their president because I want to kill my husband.’ Most people can’t do that. I wouldn’t.”
Through it all, though, the couple says their main concern was their then-18-year-old daughter, Chelsea Clinton. Hillary reveals she commanded Bill to tell Chelsea about Lewinsky before he apologized to the nation about lying under oath and obstructing justice when he denied the relationship months prior. In the series, Bill holds back tears while recounting how awful it was to admit his behavior to his daughter. Still, both Bill and Hillary credit Chelsea with “keeping them together” in the days following Bill’s grand jury testimony, referring to images that show Chelsea walking with the couple as they headed out for a post-confession trip to Martha’s Vineyard.
“That’s just so strong and so … wise,” Hillary says of Chelsea’s act of love. Bill separately added, “She was filling in our empty space there.”
The couple said they went to counseling and had many painful discussions about the state of their marriage before Hillary ultimately decided to stay with Bill, a choice she still faces judgement for today.
“I was so grateful that she thought we still had enough to stick it out. God knows the burden she paid for that,” Bill states in the lead-in to the final episode, which details the backlash Hillary faced and how it played into her bids for president years later.
When asked why he would ever take that “risk” and jeopardize his family’s future, Bill explains he never thought of his extramarital relationship with Lewinsky in that way. “Nobody sits down and thinks, ‘I think I’ll take a really irresponsible risk. It’s bad for my family, bad for my country, bad for the people who work with me.’ That’s not what happens. It’s you feel like you’re staggering around, you’ve been in a 15-round prize fight that’s been extended to 30 rounds and here’s someone who will take your mind off it for a while.”
“The things I did to manage my anxieties for years ... I’m a totally different person than who I was [with] all that stuff 20 years ago,” Bill adds. “Maybe it was just getting older, but I hope it was also going through a lot of this.”
He then shares his thoughts on what Lewinsky had to face in light of their relationship, saying he felt terrible about the unfair treatment she endured for years. Lewsinky herself wrote in The Hollywood Reporter in 2018, “For two decades, I have been working on myself, my trauma, and my healing. And, naturally, I have grappled with the rest of the world’s interpretations and Bill Clinton’s re-interpretations of what happened. But in truth, I have done this at arm’s length. There have been so many barriers to this place of self-reckoning.”
Bill’s conclusion on the subject? “I watched her try to get a normal life back again. But you have to decide how to define ‘normal.’”
As demonstrated by “Hillary,” life is anything but normal — or fair for that matter — in the world of politics. But if Hillary and Bill hoped the docuseries would put the scandal to rest, they’re out of luck: With Ryan Murphy’s “American Crime Story: Impeachment” now in the works, the Clintons and Lewinsky will soon again be primetime fodder.