Skip to content

Kicking and Streaming

Former politicians tap a new wellspring of American attention

Just like magic, or the undead, Hillary Clinton has appeared once again in the throes of a presidential election season. In late January, just days before the Iowa Caucuses, Hillary, a four-part documentary on Clinton’s life and her failed 2016 presidential campaign, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Despite some early signs that it might be a casual affair, even modest, with its talk-show title and riot girl soundtrack, the two-time presidential candidate and former First Lady quickly proved to be, as they say, back on her bullshit. Midway through the first of Hillary’s four episodes, Clinton releases an acidic take on Bernie Sanders, her former rival and one of two serious contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination: “He was in Congress for years. He had one senator support him. Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done. He was a career politician. It’s all just baloney, and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it.”

The insult to Sanders was remarkable not just for how harsh it was, nor the fact that it was objectively untrue, but for its bewildering timing. Clinton, over the period of four years, had polished the rough material of her grudge into a resplendent grievance, one with enough sheen and glare to distract anyone watching the Democrats in the winter of 2020. That this grudge should have ceased in the fall of 2016, after Sanders suspended his own presidential bid and appeared at an estimated thirty-nine campaign events across the country to help Clinton defeat Donald Trump seems not have made the film’s final cut nor crossed its subject’s mind. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter published shortly before the documentary’s Sundance premiere, Clinton was offered a chance to temper, or even dull, her attack. After repeating the comment back to Clinton, the magazine asked if her assessment still held. “Yes,” Clinton replied, “it does.”

The series can’t shake the impression that it exists primarily as a vehicle for putting its subject back in the news.

Nor did Clinton shy away from the Sanders criticism while promoting the wide release of Hillary, which debuted on Hulu earlier this month. As she made the rounds on network and cable television, she emphasized that her “authentic” opinion on the Democratic Socialist hasn’t shifted in the year and half since filming the documentary. Sanders is still baloney; he has only ever promised the “moon” to voters; he and his team “litigat[ed]” Clinton’s eventual nomination until the very last moments before the 2016 convention. Recently, during the impeachment trial of Donald Trump, Sanders was asked by reporters in the halls of Congress why he thought Clinton was still talking about 2016. “That is a good question,” he answered. “Ask her.”

If only someone could ask Clinton. Watching the “docu-series,” I had questions of my own. Why shit on Sanders so vocally? Why time the series to land on the screens of Hulu’s twenty-five million subscribers at a pivotal moment in the Democratic primary? And, aside from Clinton’s dedicated fan base, what audience is looking to settle down with a four-hour series that replays, in grueling detail, one of the most traumatic political cycles in recent history? Why can’t I remember a recent presidential cycle without Clinton?

What viewers will see in Hillary is a conventional documentary that spans the personal and professional life of one of America’s most controversial political figures, someone who has lived under intense public scrutiny for over half her life. But watching the series weeks after the splashy headlines announcing her renewed feud with Sanders, as the primary began to mimic the contours of the 2016 race, it came across more like an exercise in realpolitik, a media event masked as a documentary series and bolstered by enough weight and name recognition to displace any competitors  attempting to occupy the scarce real estate of our attention. Despite the attentive guidance of director Nanette Burstein—who may have been outmatched by Clinton’s media-trained disciples, her last big project having been a  documentary on the mythic Hollywood producer Robert Evans—the series can’t shake the impression that it exists primarily as a vehicle for putting its subject back in the news.

That’s not to say Hilllary doesn’t have a message. What connects its dozens of interviews with Clinton’s innermost circle—John Podesta, Philipe Reines, Jennifer Palmieri, and Robby Mook among them—is a shared belief in the limits of political optimism and the need for moderation in our political thinking. Or, as Clinton puts it to Burstein, “the art of the possible.” What may not scan as cynicism is clarified by the fact that Hillary is implicitly directed at the kind of young voters who might subscribe to a streaming service like Hulu—median age: thirty-two—and was released while the ascendant left was the closest it’s come to acquiring electoral power in over three decades.

Consider also that the series operates less by the conventions of documentary filmmaking than the conventions of content calibrated for the streaming age. Like the Sanders soundbite, Hillary’s gambit to reveal an “authentic” Clinton is targeted at her legions of fans. While it’s unremarkable fodder for anyone who watched 2016 closely, or anyone relatively news conscious for the past two decades, it offers the kind of access loyal supporters and aspiring girl bosses could until now only fantasize about. There’s also the nostalgia factor. The series relies heavily on Clinton’s personal photos, a pacifying technique meant to make her own residual anger over 2016 palatable, even understandable. We see Clinton as a law student, sporting thick glasses and long hair. We see her as a young mother. She is shown to be a perpetually evolving symbol of the feminist movement and a person increasingly responsive to public sentiment and her husband’s political aides: the glasses are replaced by contacts for Bill’s second gubernatorial race in 1982. Most recognizably, we see Clinton as a target of the right’s emerging culture wars, starting in 1993, when she attempted to sell America on a complex version of universal health care.

These scenes are buffered with off-the-cuff conversations between Clinton and Burstein, sometimes as Clinton’s makeup is being applied for interviews. For her part, Burstein handles the lows of Clinton’s life with the same zeal as she does the highs. But this doesn’t make her seem like a neutral observer; like anyone gifted with access to the inner circle, Burstein was certainly vetted by the team. The sense that this is a yet another example of post-election PR, akin to Rebecca Traister’s famously “surreal” encounter with the Clinton team crying at Cipriani, is hard to shake. In one squirm-inducing interview about Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, Burstein asks the former president for an explanation that verges on an intervention: for Hillary, for her fans, for the viral bit. And like a good team player, Bill takes the hit and blames the whole thing, Clinton-style, on his anxieties.

This approach of dredging up all grievances, no matter how flogged, feels like proof of Clinton’s inevitable transformation into “human clickbait” or her still unabated hubris (consider that Hillary comes on the heels of two recent memoirs, 2014’s Hard Choices and 2017’s What Happened). But there are also hints that this is the first move in a personal project to extend Clinton’s reach beyond the grave of her political life. Hillary is a glimpse of a post-political figure attempting to wield their still sizable cultural influence with the bottomless support—and pockets—of a streaming platform.

Are the Clintons and Obamas looking to slum it with the creative classes, the disenfranchised content producers of the world?

It’s a strange marriage, but the kind that we should expect to see more of. Last May, Clinton and her daughter Chelsea announced their intention to form a production company for the purpose of influencing “culture and society” by telling stories about women, according to a report by Bloomberg. The report noted that the Clintons would likely shop their content to studios, but it seems reasonable to anticipate that Hulu might eventually become the exclusive partner for these projects. This arrangement would mirror Barack and Michelle Obama’s unprecedented deal with Netflix, announced in 2018: a “story-telling partnership” rumored to be worth “eight figures” for the Obamas, or on par with the reportedly record-shattering $65 million advance they received from Penguin Random House for their memoirs. The Obamas’ production company, Higher Ground Productions, has quickly emerged as a blue-chip distributor after its first project, American Factory, won an Oscar for Best Documentary at this year’s Academy Awards. Forthcoming projects include an adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book The Fifth Risk, a Frederick Douglass biopic, a drama set in the fashion world, and a children’s food show by Jeremy Konner and actress Erika Thormahlen, the creators of Drunk History.

Are the Clintons and Obamas looking to slum it with the creative classes, the disenfranchised content producers of the world? It’s funny to imagine, but no: they’re making far too much money for that. They’re here to elevate the product. To curate and filter our pipelines of streaming goo with storytelling that embodies purpose. “We created Higher Ground to harness the power of storytelling,” the Obamas said in a statement. “Touching on issues of race and class, democracy and civil rights, and much more, we believe each of these productions won’t just entertain, but will educate, connect, and inspire us all.” This is very much what Theodor Adorno liked to refer to as “committed” art—moralistic art that was designed to teach its audiences instead of merely offering them pleasure. For the German social critic, who wrote of the struggle between aesthetics and pleasure and politics in his 1974 essay “Commitment,” the only way to manage the deceptions of any kind of art with a message was simple: ignore it.

But we probably won’t, considering the narcotic feedback loop of streaming content. Maybe we should be thankful for the Obamas’ promise of redemptive TV, here to edify you and me. Our former president and First Lady are here to save us from the kinds of abhorrent impulses that would lead us to watch The Bachelor on Hulu or Love is Blind on Netflix instead of engaging in high-minded social matters. Yet the lofty aims of Higher Ground are at odds with the principles of the company financing these dreams. It’s no secret that Netflix is a company dedicated to the vast proliferation of just entertainment, at a scale and speed no studio on earth can compete with. It both makes more content and spends more money making that content than any other television network in history—over $17 billion in spending is predicted for 2020 alone. Quality, in this context, matters far less than the ability of a show to capture an audience, what television critic James Poniewozik once referred to as “The Suck.” Netflix may deny that it seeks binge-able content from its original programming, but the rate of consumption (or the measure of our passivity) is the talk of its executives, who obsess over metrics like “twenty-eight-day viewership,” a measure of viewers who complete a show season within a month.

It’s no secret that Netflix is a company dedicated to the vast proliferation of just entertainment, at a scale and speed no studio on earth can compete with.

This is a company, too, with a burn rate of $3.5 billion a year, despite being, as of 2019, the highest-valued media company in the world. What makes Netflix so valuable is the promise of an audience more in thrall to its programming than any other provider. In effect, our attention created the conditions (i.e. revenue) for Netflix to sign the Obamas to a lucrative contract that allows them, in turn, to promise viewers the kind of content designed to enrich our hollow desire for unrefined entertainment. Some might call this a complication or a compromise, but it’s most accurately called a contradiction. Others will simply call it capitalism. But can a “progressive” media mogul admit to such impure motivations?

Adorno recognized the entire thing as a bait and switch. “Committed works all too readily credit themselves with every noble value, and then manipulate them at their ease,” he wrote. “Under fascism too, no atrocity was perpetrated without a moral veneer.” Of course, the moral veneer is a flexible concept, equally suited for policies like building The Wall and mass deportation as “the art of the possible.” And like so many agreements hashed out behind closed doors for the profit of a small group of individuals nonetheless made in the name of the public—the kind of deals that so regularly occurred during the Obama presidency and the Clintons’ political reign—it’s politics as usual.

Watching Hillary, I felt the familiar despair of 2016, each day a slow walk to greater dissatisfaction. This was a time when we couldn’t yet comprehend the derangement to come, just as I imagine we still can’t envision what further cruelties may await us in 2020. It’s a viewing experience that, all told, made me feel like shit. But I don’t think Hillary Clinton wanted me to feel like shit. I think she wanted me to understand her, to participate in her narrative, to shoulder her aggrievement, to kill off my pie-in-the-sky political fantasies and then ask her for a selfie. The most insidious aspect of Hillary’s palpitations is the effort made to convince viewers that the personal tragedy of her loss is the same thing as the collectively experienced tragedy of Trump’s victory. It’s the committed work of the streaming era, now ready to scale for the next class of political dropouts and opportunists who want to roll up their shirtsleeves and curate content in the name of whatever ideology. They’ll be back, long after they’ve lost power, staggering through our feeds and SEO rankings like the living dead. Wanting nothing more from us, this time around, than that most sacred of American values: attention.