Hillary Clinton is opening up like she never has before. In the four-part Hulu documentary directed by Nanette Burstein, the former first lady and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate’s personal and professional journey is chronicled through candid interviews with Clinton, her husband, Bill, and daughter, Chelsea, as well as Barack Obama, former staffers, close family friends and journalists who have followed her career.
The eye-opening and compelling series also examines how Clinton has become one of the most polarizing personalities in the country. “She's admired, she's vilified, and somewhere within there lies the truth,” Burstein tells ET, explaining that “it says so much about our country and so much about the history of feminist movements, our relationship to women in power. It also speaks to our history of partisan politics and where we are today.”
After spending years trying to make the documentary, the time was finally right for Clinton, who agreed to sit down with Burstein. She was not in office or running for office, and could now speak intimately without having to worry about political blowback, the filmmaker says.
Ultimately, Burstein got three to four hours with Clinton over seven days to talk candidly about the ups and downs in her life, including her time as first lady of Arkansas, her fight for universal healthcare, her advocacy for women’s rights, the 2016 election as well as her husband’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and the subsequent 1998 impeachment trial.
While Clinton previously revealed to reporters that “nothing was off-limits,” Burstein says the topic ended up being one of the last things they discussed on-camera. “She would put off talking about it until towards the end because it just felt like pulling teeth,” she says. As for the former president, the director adds that “he felt that he owed it to her to be candid on camera about this.”
The end result is a surprisingly emotional and frank reflection on what happened behind closed doors as Clinton faced the most damaging and toughest moment in her marriage and career.
“Bill came early one morning into the bedroom -- I was not up yet -- and he sat on the side of the bed and said, ‘I have to tell you something. There’s a story that’s going to be in the newspaper. It’s about an intern who worked in the White House and claiming I had a relationship with her,’” Clinton recalls in the third episode, “The Hardest Decision.”
She explains that the morning the news broke in the press, her husband was adamant that it wasn’t true and convinced her that “there was nothing to it.”
“That’s what I believed,” Clinton continues, explaining that she thought “it was part of the whole Starr investigation. And I was absolutely persuaded because of my own experience, not what anybody else went through but what I went through.”
Eventually, the 42nd president told her exactly what happened between him and Lewinsky. “I said, ‘I feel terrible about it,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘We’ve been through quite a bit the last few years.’ I said, ‘I have no defenses. It’s inexcusable what I did.’”
“I was just devastated,” Clinton says. “I could not believe it. I was so personally just hurt.”
Later, when Burstein asks the former president why he would take such a huge risk with everything, he explains that wasn’t something he thought about at the time. “That’s not why people do stupid things. That’s not what happened. Nobody sits down and thinks, ‘I’ll take a really irresponsible risk that’s bad for my family, bad for my country, bad for the people who work with me,’” he says. “You’ve been in a 15-round cross fight that was extended to 30 rounds and here’s someone who will take your mind off of it for a while. That’s what happened.”
Clearly emotional, he continued by saying, “What I did, it was bad. But it wasn’t like I thought, ‘How can I think about the most stupid thing I can do and do it?’ It’s not a defense, it’s an explanation. It was awful.”
Shortly after the scandal broke, the Clinton family retreated to Martha’s Vineyard. While leaving the White House, Chelsea was seen putting herself between her parents, holding both of their hands as they walked toward Marine One.
“That was not anything other than her trying to keep us together. And when she did that, oh my gosh, I just thought, ‘That’s just so incredible. So strong and so wise,’” Clinton recalls, with her husband adding that Chelsea “was filling in our empty space there. That picture is worth a million words.”
Following the revelations about the affair and the president’s initial denials, Congress voted to impeach him -- something Clinton thought was “wrong.”
“I knew what the standards of impeachment were. I knew this did not meet it,” she says, explaining that she had been on an impeachment staff in 1974 and understood what defined a high crime or misdemeanor. “He shouldn’t have done what he did and he shouldn’t have tried to hide it, but it was not an impeachable offense.”
While Clinton defended her husband against the impeachment process, she still “had to decide whether I wanted to stay in the marriage, whether I thought it was worth saving,” she says, revealing that they “saw a counselor [and had] painful, painful discussions.”
The former president adds that “it was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. But it was necessary. She deserved it. Chelsea deserved it. And I needed it. I feel terrible about the fact that Monica Lewinsky’s life was defined by it -- unfairly I think. Over the years, I watched her try to get a normal life back again.”
The documentary also examines how the country’s perception of Clinton changed in the wake of the affair. Her approval ratings rose as she went on the campaign trail for Democrats in the midterm election while her decision to stay married was met with more polarizing reactions.
“I think that some people thought I made the right decision and some people thought I made the wrong decision. So I’ve gotten both affirmation and criticism for the decision I made. And that was true from the beginning of deciding that,” Clinton recalls, with her husband adding that he’s so grateful to her for sticking it out. “God knows the burden she paid for that,” he says.
While Burstein says it was “hard for the both of them” to talk about that chapter in their lives, it was even more overwhelming for Clinton to watch the final cut of the documentary. In fact, Clinton later revealed to Ellen DeGeneres that it was a “really emotionally draining experience to go through it again.”
She continued by saying that “once I saw the whole four hours of the documentary, I hope that our talking about this, my willingness to address all of this, really does help other people. There are lessons. There are lessons from my life, our times. People need to be thoughtful about the decisions they make in their own lives. And we should be kinder and more supportive to everybody who makes the best decisions they think they can make.”