It’s no real surprise that the moment NBC announced that it had ordered a
fictionalized mini-series about Hillary Clinton written by Courtney Hunt and starring Diane Lane, and CNN followed suit with plans for a documentary look at
the former Secretary of State, Senator, and First Lady, directed by Charles Ferguson that critics came out of the woodwork. It’s not shocking either
that Republicans would be anxious about the prospect of Clinton getting love from the media when they’re a long way from establishing a front-runner, or
that Democrats would be anxious about the possible resurrection of old smears against Clinton. But there’s an odd undercurrent to the idea that NBC should
stay in its proper place and avoid offering up an artistic, or even entertaining take on her career.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus wrote in a letter to
NBC president Bob Greenblatt that Greenblatt’s announcement that the network’s planned mini-series would air before the 2016 campaign really kicked off
“suggests a deliberate attempt at influencing American political opinion in favor of a preferred candidate, not to mention a guilty conscience.” David
Brock, the president and founder of Media Matters for America, suggested that there was something untoward about NBC’s approach in his own letter to
Greenblatt. “NBC has a reputation for objectivity and fairness,” he argued. “Yet NBC Entertainment acknowledged that it will be
evaluating the content not by journalistic standards, but rather purely by entertainment value. A fictionalized caricature of Clinton may make for more
dramatic appeal, but diversions from reality are likely to blow back on NBC News.”
Both these takes from the left and right operate from a common point of disapproval: that NBC is daring to let the frivolity of pop culture intrude on the
serious business of covering a presidential election. Greenblatt, it seems, ought to be ashamed of himself for taking an entertainment-based approach to a
It’s easy to point out that political reporting doesn’t have much of a high ground to stand on in comparison to cultural takes on politics–and that
campaigns frequently use cultural signaling to attract voters. Our election rituals, after all, currently require that candidates stop at the Iowa State
Fair to eat junk food, reveal their favorite books–who can forget Mitt Romney’s fondness for Battlefield Earth–and pretend that their affection
for hip-hop means they have some sort of edge. Campaign coverage, no matter the direction it comes from, is often so driven by an addiction to traffic
spikes and attempts to win the news cycle that it chases small gaffes, ticks, or even Marco Rubio’s hydration habits shamelessly. The behavior of news
outlets in an election year makes a network president’s attempts to get a tenth of a point or two up in a perennially tight ratings race look as sober as
the deliberations of an Oxbridge scholarly committee.
But that’s a defensive argument. The real reason NBC should go ahead with its fictionalized Clinton mini-series, and that I’m excited for Young Il Kim and
James Ponsoldt’s Rodham, is that art has an important role in helping us think through what we value in candidates, and in helping us cultivate
empathy for politicians and the decisions that they make.
Hillary Rodham Clinton isn’t a new subject for this kind of thought experiment. Primary Colors, Joe Klein’s novel, which was published anonymously
in 1996 and adapted into an excellent movie starring Emma Thompson as a fictionalized version of the First Lady in 1998, is a deep meditation on Clinton’s
charms and compromises. While the focus is ostensibly on Jack Stanton, a marginal Southern candidate for governor, Primary Colors is more
concerned with why a woman as smart as his wife Susan has hitched her star to a man who repeatedly cheats on her, and the political lengths she’s willing
to go to in order to make that bet pay off. Rodham examines similar questions, but on a different timetable. The script flashes back to the period
when young Hillary Rodham was both finding herself professionally as a lawyer in Washington and making a difficult decision about whether she was willing
to pursue a different career path to continue her relationship with Bill Clinton, a man who clearly inspired her intellectually but could be careless with
her feelings. That’s certainly a dilemma that resonates with a lot of women, and not just as voters, if this
weekend’s blockbuster New York Times Magazine article
reexamining the lives of professional women who opted out of the workforce and are trying to get back in is any indication.
Last summer, the USA Network ran an excellent miniseries, Political Animals, about an imagined world in which a Hillary surrogate, Elaine Barrish
(Sigourney Weaver) had divorced her ex-president husband after shuttering her own campaign for the presidency. Political Animals was more
concerned with the use of power than Primary Colors was: while serving as Secretary of State for a male president who was younger than she was,
Barrish had to handle a hostage crisis in Iran and a sunken submarine that damages the U.S.’s relations with China. The as-yet-untitled NBC miniseries,
which will star Diane Lane as Clinton, also is poised to focus on Clinton’s years in
offices she won on her own merits, rather than her time as First Lady. The idea of reclaiming your role in public life after a decade of being painted as a
Lady Macbeth isn’t just true to Clinton’s life: it’s incredibly rich creative territory that plenty of anti-hero television creators could stand to learn
These fictional accounts may focus more on character than on the substance of policy, but to pretend that presidential elections are decided solely on the
substance of briefing papers is laughable. And if we’re going to consider character, trying to imagine what’s going on inside Hillary Clinton’s head isn’t
a more legitimate enterprise when journalist Gail Sheehy is trying to envision it than when Greg Berlanti, who made Political Animals, gives it a
shot. And among the benefits of fiction are a drive for new narratives rather than the ones that have been established and gone stale in the news media: Rodham‘s examination of a young lawyer’s work on the Nixon impeachment inquiry shines light on a period that rarely is a substantive part of the
discussion of Clinton’s record of public service, while Political Animals examined how the Clinton-Obama relationship could have developed
And these projects don’t just matter because of how they help us think about Hillary Rodham Clinton and how it might be to have her as president. They’re
rare opportunities for pop culture to depict a woman in a significant leadership position. A recent analysis by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found
that women hold just 34.4 percent of the jobs characters are depicted as having in prime-time television programming, even though women make up 47 percent
of the workforce. We’re underrepresented in work at all, much less in fictional positions of power.
Davis’s presidential drama Commander in Chief was cancelled in 2006. Since 2010, when 24, which at the time had Cherry Jones playing
President Allison Taylor, ended its run, Parks and Recreation is one of the only positive ongoing depictions of a woman in public office currently
on air, and Leslie Knope is only a city councilwoman in Pawnee, Indiana. On Scandal, the other show about women in politics, Vice President Sally
Langston is portrayed as a scheming arch-conservative who briefly served as acting president while President Fitzgerald Grant was in a coma, and who
attempted to use his illness as a means of effectively staging a coup. On film, the most recent woman to play a fictional president is Stephanie Paul, but
who got the role in Iron Sky, a trashy science fiction film that posited that Nazis were attacking earth from space.
Culture may be the realm of the imagination, but apparently our imaginations remain pretty limited when it comes to women in high office. If nothing else, Hillary will play a very small part in expanding our fictional thinking, and in remedying the gross gender imbalance on our TV screens.
And let’s remember the women who are involved in the project, not just the business executive who ordered it. The creative voice behind Hillary is
Courtney Hunt, who wrote and directed Frozen River, the nervy 2008 drama about a woman drawn into a cross-border smuggling scheme in the part of
upstate New York that meets Quebec that produced a Best Actress-nominated performance from Melissa Leo. And she’s done similar work with complex female
characters in directing episodes of therapy drama In Treatment that focused on the woman patients, and of the long-running police procedural Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Diane Lane’s worked selectively in recent years, in part because her career’s been a good illustration of the limited work available to even the most
talented actresses once they hit forty. But in this summer’s blockbuster Superman reboot Man of Steel and in HBO’s Cinema Verite, a
fictionalized look at the Loud family, who agreed to be filmed for what became America’s first real reality television program, she gave excellent
performances as women under enormous pressure, and in Cinema Verite, grappling with her sudden fame. It’ll be fantastic to see her get to step out
from domestic roles and into a character with a rich public and professional life.
In other words, before we get all hot and bothered about the possible content of one of the many pieces of media about Hillary Rodham Clinton that will air
on television in between now and November 8, 2016, maybe we should see what it’s going to look like? If the work of these two women–and the Hillary
projects that precede them–are any indication, we’ll get a miniseries that’s richer and more emotionally sensitive than the evening news. And our
conversations about the candidate will be better off for it.