What the Media Won’t Tell You About Venezuela: mini-documentary won’t tell you much more either

What the Media Won’t Tell You About Venezuela” (ReallyGraceful, 3 June 2017)

Viewers of this very short mini-documentary on Venezuelan politics won’t learn very much about why Venezuela’s current socialist government under President Nicolas Maduro continues to survive despite the country’s poverty and food shortages – nor will they learn anything about what’s actually fuelling the food shortages there. The thrust of ReallyGraceful’s video is to show that the people of Venezuela – and by implication, people in other middle and lower income nations around the world – are caught between two camps of evil, or what ReallyGraceful herself perceives as evil, and that the Western mainstream news media will push their audiences to choose one of these camps (usually the US and its allies) as the good guys. In the film, former President Hugo Chavez and the socialist ideology and structures he implemented in Venezuela are viewed by ReallyGraceful as part of Venezuela’s ongoing problems; at the same time ReallyGraceful correctly identifies Venezuela being under siege by the US and forces allied with it (among them, Israel and the global finance industry including the Bank of International Settlements) as part and parcel of the problem as well.

While ReallyGraceful does well in fingering the dominance of the oil industry in Venezuela’s economy over past decades as the underlying foundation of Venezuela’s recent past and current problems, she fails to note that this dominance is the result of policies made by past politically conservative governments in the country working together with US political and corporate interests to the detriment of Venezuelan people. Such policies privileged foreign oil interests (to the extent that other industries in the country suffered from lack of support and declined) and ignored the healthcare, educational and other social needs of the Venezuelan people. When Chavez became President in 1999, he sought to rectify the dire economic straits of the majority of Venezuelan people by using oil revenues to fund social services and other programs. To his credit also, Chavez tried to diversify Venezuelan industry and support programs aimed at reviving agriculture though with mixed success.

ReallyGraceful notes that food shortages have been severe in Venezuela but fails to realise that, again, the favouring of the oil industry and US oil interests by conservative governments before Chavez led to the decline of agriculture in Venezuela to the point where the country became overly dependent on imports of food, even food staples. For some reason, or perhaps because his time as President was cut short, Chavez never tried to wrest control of food imports away from companies owned by wealthy families and individuals opposed to his government and socialist ideology, and current President Maduro and his government are perhaps too preoccupied in dealing with more urgent issues to be able to address this issue of food imports. The result is that food importers can use classic-economics demand and supply phenomena as blackmail over the general public and create social and economic chaos for the Maduro government.

ReallyGraceful’s anti-socialist stance blinds her to the possibility of Venezuelans as individuals and in groups, communities and non-profit organisations confronting the food shortage issue by growing their own food and organising their own food markets to sell, barter or otherwise distribute food to those who need it most.

I note though that ReallyGraceful ends her film by observing that Venezuela is under pressure from the US and the global finance industry to yield its natural resources to foreign ownership and control. As she always does, she invites viewers to comment on her mini-documentaries, which is her way of admitting that she is open to criticism and counter-opinions.

Post Mortem: Four Corners Australia Post / Christine Holgate autopsy turns up cool on privatisation issue

“Post Mortem” (Four Corners, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 28 June 2021)

Posited as an investigation into the recent history and culture of Australia Post, and the actions that took place that led to the departure of Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate, this Four Corners report ends up as simply a series of claims and counter-claims from which viewers will learn little other than that Australia Post has long been in the Liberal / National coalition government’s target sights for privatisation and will continue to be such a target. The bulk of the report is in the form of excerpts from several interviews made by reporter Michael Brissenden with key protagonist Holgate herself and others including the current Federal Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts Paul Fletcher.

The report initially begins with the supposed scandal surrounding Holgate’s gifts of Cartier watches totalling $12,000 to senior Australia Post executives, the uproar that resulted (which both the ALP and the Coalition government exploited for their own ends) and Holgate’s forced departure; it then backtracks into following the recent history of Australia Post and its organisation and culture from the time Ahmed Fahour became Australia Post CEO in 2010 and began restructuring its business. Along the way from the time Fahour joined Australia Post, left and was replaced by Holgate, to Holgate herself having to leave, viewers get a little insight into Fahour and Holgate’s respective leadership styles and their vision for Australia Post, and how Holgate’s plans for the organisation came up against the Federal Government’s ultimate goal for the postal service.

One might have expected that Four Corners, being part of a government-run organisation whose budget has steadily been run down by successive Coalition governments, might have come out swinging against the Federal government’s privatisation agenda or the Boston Consulting Group’s recommendations that Australia Post be subjected to break-up and privatisation moves but the report does no such thing. Brissenden does not canvass (or appear to) any opinions among Licensed Postal Offices (private businesses that operate postal services under contract to Australia Post; they may operate purely as post offices or combine the functions with another line of business, such as running a newsagency or general store) or Australia Post employees, apart from a former AP executive, on the issue of privatisation or on what they think of Holgate. (My understanding is that the LPOs support her.) Instead the report ends up merely parroting a polemical series of arguments, painting Australia Post as an organisation with a chaotic management culture, that go nowhere. The conclusion to the report, if any can be said to exist, is deliberately left open-ended.

The curious thing is that the one group that has come out in favour of keeping Australia Post as a government-run institution, the Australian Citizens’ Party, was portrayed in the Four Corners report as a “fringe” party (read: a bunch of crackpot conspiracy theorists) supportive of the views of Lyndon LaRouche, described in the report as “anti-Semitic, a racist and a conspiracy theorist” and nothing more. That in itself might tell us more about the Four Corners program and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation than it does about the Australian Citizens’ Party: that despite the very real danger of privatisation facing the ABC itself, the organisation dares not support other government institutions also facing privatisation and the loss of employment – not to mention the devastation rural communities would face without Australia Post, the ABC and other government agencies – it would lead to.

Whatever happened to so-called investigative journalism and advocating for Aussie battlers at the ABC? If one were to judge from the manner of this Four Corners report, real investigative journalism on behalf of defending the powerless no longer exists there.

Senga Tsubo: a tale within a tale about gratitude and returning favours

Sanae Yamamoto, “Senga Tsubo” (1925)

Said to be the first animated film commission by the Ministry of Education in Japan back in 1925, this 16-minute short features a morality tale within another morality tale about being grateful and returning favours to one who has done you a good deed. A young hard-working fisherman goes out to catch the day’s fish with his net and instead hauls up a small pot. A genie comes out of the pot and threatens to eat the fisherman. The quick-thinking would-be dinner challenges the genie to return into the pot which the dull-witted demon promptly does, only to be trapped by the fisherman. The fisherman then tells the genie the tale of the lion and his free-loading fox friend who eats the lion’s leftover meals. The fox tricks the lion into chasing an ostrich; while the lion is preoccupied, the fox steals the building materials from the lion’s den and makes up his own den. The lion soon returns and is angry at being robbed. The fox entices a human hunter to kill the lion. However the fox has become dependent on the lion for fresh food and soon grows hungry and thin. Venturing out of his den, he goes down to the river where a crocodile attacks him. Too weak to run away, the fox is chowed down by the reptile.

After hearing the story, the genie is apologetic about his ungrateful behaviour and offers the fisherman a larger pot for his troubles. The fisherman takes this pot home and discovers it full of gold coins.

The animation consists mainly of often astonishingly detailed and fine line-drawn scenery and backgrounds with no colour, against which cut-out figures of the humans, the animals and the genie act out the story. Though “Senga Tsubo” is a silent film, the characters communicate through speech balloons with cut-out characters, similar to what is found in comics. The characterisation of the fisherman and the genie is very deft; the fisherman proves himself cunning as well as diligent and loyal to his family, and the genie turns out to be a good-hearted if not too intelligent fellow.

The film’s emphasis on plot and characterisation may be unusual for Japanese anime films of its time, and indeed for much animation around the world being produced at the same time. While there is some farce, it grows out of the story itself and does not depend on character stereotypes. Viewers may find the plot quite absorbing which compensates for the limited appeal of the animation style used.

Suteneko Tora-chan: a charming and graceful film on the plight of war orphans and keeping society together

Kenzo Masaoka, “Suteneko Tora-chan” (1947)

A charming film about an orphaned kitten found and adopted by a family of cats, “Suteneko Tora-chan” addresses some of the concerns and issues of Japanese society in the period after World War II. The plight of war orphans was uppermost in people’s minds after the carnage of war. Keeping family together and everyone pulling their weight together just to survive adversity and poverty were also major concerns. A mother cat and her three kittens find a tiny abandoned orphan kitten, Tora-chan, and the mother and two of her kittens immediately adopt the orphan. The third kitten, Miike-chan, rejects Tora-chan and bullies him during the kittens’ play-time. When Mother Cat gently but firmly separates Miike-chan and Tora-chan, and treats Tora-chan as one of her children, Miike-chan runs away from home. Feeling responsibile for Miike-chan’s behaviour, Tora-chan goes in search of her. He catches up with Miike-chan but in trying to bring her home, the two kittens encounter many obstacles and hostile animals including a dog and a hen defending her chicks, and barely survive being dumped over a waterfall.

The animation is very graceful and well done with smooth transitions from one scene to the next. The cats are very endearing in their rounded forms and the background scenery can be very detailed. The adoption of Christmas at the beginning and end of the film, and the use of sunflowers as a motif delineating summer-time show the growing influence of Western and specifically American culture on Japanese society during the immediate post-war period. In the plot, the kittens’ arduous adventures, the characters of Mother Cat and Tora-chan, and the sung dialogue, the film tries to persuade its target family audiences to care more for war orphans and children made destitute by circumstances not of their families’ making. In caring for the young, Japanese society ensures that its collective values will survive and continue.

The Courier: a film of personal growth and suffering and of friendship transcending politics and ideology

Dominic Cooke, “The Courier” (2020)

The story of Greville Wynne, a most unlikely character ever to become a spy for MI6 during the Cold War in the early 1960s, shuttling between London and Moscow and ferrying classified Soviet information given him by a military official in the Kremlin that reveals nuclear warfare capabilities to MI6 and the CIA, is given widescreen movie treatment that explores the nature of friendship and loyalty in extreme circumstances. Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) comes to the attention of MI6 and the CIA, represented respectively by handlers Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) as he travels frequently to eastern Europe as a sales representative for an engineering company. Wynne is asked to go to Moscow and contact Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet military intel official, who will give him papers to bring back to London, in his usual role as sales representative. After initially resisting the offer, Wynne goes ahead to Moscow and meets Penkovsky. A routine is quickly established: Wynne starts making trips to Moscow to catch up with Penkovsky who takes him to the opera and the ballet, and introduces the British man to his family, all the while feeding Wynne with information and photographs that eventually prove valuable to US intelligence and the White House in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. However the Soviets themselves have a mole working in MI6 – there were a number of double agents in British intelligence working for the USSR – and the mole helps the GRU to work out who is passing valuable Soviet secrets to the British. Penkovsky and then Wynne are arrested by the GRU, tried and charged with espionage, and both men are thrown into gaol. Wynne winds up in the then notorious Lubyanka prison where he suffers many privations and beatings over a period of nearly two years before he returns to Britain in 1964 as part of a spy swap.

The film serves mainly as a character study of an ordinary Englishman, initially unremarkable in personality and very apolitical, suddenly thrust into a situation where he eventually is forced to take sides and finds himself capable of heroism to try to save a man he comes to regard as a friend when that man’s life is in danger. In doing so, he is captured and is forced to suffer brutal violence, near-starvation and ill health in prison, subjected to psychological manipulation and not knowing if he has been abandoned by MI6. Cumberbatch does excellent work as Wynne who grows in moral stature through the film even though what he does as a courier is a thankless task – there is no suggestion that MI6 and the CIA reward him for the risks he is exposed to. Indeed MI6 is quite willing to discard Penkovsky and his desire to defect to th West once the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) is onto his trail and only Donovan rallies to Wynne’s side to try to save Penkovsky from arrest and certain death. The suffering Wynne undergoes is matched in the physical rigours Cumberbatch had to undergo including near-starvation to get the haggard look. Unfortunately the film ends at the point where Wynne is released from prison and reunited with wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) and son Andrew (Keir Hill) and we do not see the psychological traumas and other effects – including separation and divorce from Sheila – Wynne suffered, and this perhaps is a grave oversight on the part of the script.

The other actors in the film, and Ninidze in particular, also give very good performances. Buckley does what she can with a very limited role as Wynne’s long-suffering wife. As a sop to current Western identity politics, the character of Donovan is a composite character of several actual CIA and MI6 agents who include a British woman, Janet Chisholm, who also was a conduit for Penkovsky. The cinematography is well done, emphasising the greys of a world of 60 years ago in which black and white were actually not so clear-cut as we think they were, without being remarkable. The scenes set in Moscow or which involve Russians appear very stereotyped and viewers get no real sense of how Russians might have viewed Penkovsky and Wynne after they have been caught and their espionage made public.

The film is well made and fairly faithful to its source material, extracting from it a story about one man’s personal growth and a friendship that transcends politics and the grubby and frequently unethical world of espionage. Still I can’t help but feel that “The Courier” was made largely in the service of current British government propaganda and deliberate disinformation and lies demonising Russia for no reason other than that Russia has been a long-standing rival to British global imperialist and predatory ambitions, and that this context in which the film was made must surely have had some influence on the way the script was written and what may have had to be omitted. While the Americans get what they want to outfox the Soviets on the latter’s deployment of missile bases in Cuba, and the Soviets shut down Penkovsky as a traitor, the British must still be seen to “win” in some way, hence perhaps stopping an interesting story of how espionage was usually done and how unsuspecting ordinary people got roped into spying and ended up paying a price for it, just to achieve that “happy ending”. Intel agencies carry on duelling against each other in spite of the alarming collateral damage they create along the way.

The Red Dagger: a fiery poem essay narration and diatribe against corruption and oppression

Alan Cox, Heathcote Williams, “The Red Dagger” (2013?)

Presented in six parts on Youtube, British actor / poet Heathcote Williams’ poem essay “The Red Dagger”, a diatribe against the City of London and the part it has played in oppressing humanity across the world since the 1300s at least, is given vivid and impassioned audiovisual life by fellow UK actor Alan Cox who narrates the poem and supplies the montage of art, photographs, film stills and snippets of film and video to accompany his recitation. The red dagger of the title refers to the red sword that appears on the emblem of the City of London and, according to Williams and Cox, represents the dagger used in the murder of Wat Tyler, one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt in England, in 1381 by officers loyal to King Richard II. (According to other sources I have read, the red sword on the emblem is a representation of St Paul, the patron saint of London.) Through the details of Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, in which Tyler and rebel monk John Ball led a movement insisting on social equality, abolishing the political hierarchy supporting the monarchy and ending the feudal system (under which peasants were the de facto property of landlords, bound to their masters’ lands), the poet Williams calls attention to the corruption of the political and economic elites that surrounded King Richard II (reigned 1377 – 1399) and finds parallels with the present City of London, its corruption and its control of the global financial industry, and how the activities of the financial elites impoverish and enslave entire nations.

Parts 1 and 2 of Cox’s fiery narration cover the 1381 uprising of English peasants against the King and his lords, and in itself the uprising as portrayed is very stirring. Whether or not the uprising has lessons for us in the 21st century might be debatable: for one thing, the levels of technology in mediaeval England were low, scientific and other general knowledge was limited, and the manipulation and exploitation that English elites exerted over the peasantry correspondingly were limited to mainly physical means, with some limited brainwashing of people’s minds courtesy of the Christian Church, a significant landowner and itself a major landlord oppressor of peasants. The most significant parts of Cox’s narration are Parts 3 and 4 in which he goes into detail about the extent of the activities and networking of the elites in the City of London and its secretive institutions, the extent to which the City of London controls the British government, its past participation in the British colonial / imperial project and the Atlantic slave trade, and its current participation in trafficking arms to nations with sordid human rights records and the global drug trade. Individuals and businesses in the UK financial services industry take advantage of opportunities to evade paying taxes owed to the government by sending money into offshore trust accounts or transfer pricing arrangements in tax havens. Something of the lavish, decadent culture of the City of London elites, dependent on rich banqueting and the associated networking, fuelled by addictions to drugs, casual sex and use of prostitutes, and possible links to sex trafficking and other sordid underground activities, is revealed in the narration and montage.

Cox’s film and Williams’ poem cover much ground and detail of how the City of London operates and has operated over the centuries, and viewers might well need to see the film at least twice to absorb most details. Being based entirely around Williams’ poem, the film does not give information sources so viewers will need to do their own research to confirm the information about the City of London. (A good start is Nicolas Shaxson’s book “Treasure Islands” which investigates the global scourge that is taxation evasion.) While the poem and film might play hard and fast with some details in parts, and Tyler’s actual rebellion might not have been as utopian, idealistic and socialist as the poem implies, the poetry genre proves to be an ideal format by which Williams (1941 – 2017) brings important political, economic, social and historical information to the general public’s attention.

The film along with transcripts of each part and footnotes giving information sources can be viewed at this link.

Hillary (Episode 4: Be Our Champion, Go Away): concluding episode delving into outright fantasy and falsehood

Nanette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 4: Be Our Champion, Go Away)” (2020)

If the first three episodes of this series on Hillary Rodham Clinton are essentially worshipful hagiography, the fourth and concluding episode descends into outright fantasy. Viewers learn very little new about HRC and especially about her years as Senator for New York and then as Secretary of State during Barack Obama’s first term as US President (2009 – 2013). The episode brushes aside HRC’s voting record as Senator on the wars initiated by President George W Bush (2001 – 2009) in Afghanistan in late 2001, soon after the World Trade Center attacks, and then in Iraq in 2003. The not so little incident of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens being ambushed and killed along with three other Americans in the consulate in Benghazi, eastern Libya, by terrorists is also treated quite cavalierly. Nothing is said about HRC’s role in allowing a context to exist in which four American citizens end up being killed in a small building in a city where one of them, a US Ambassador, is not expected to be. What was Stevens doing in Benghazi anyway – surely not running guns and jihadi fighters to Syria? Similarly nothing is made of the overthrow of a legitimately elected government in Honduras in 2010 or in Libya in 2011, the latter to which HRC, while being interviewed, cackled and said, “We came, we saw, he [Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddhafi] died!” On top of this inattention to the issues that Americans are most concerned about – issues about public servants being accountable for their decisions and behaviours, and upholding the law – is the breezy dismissal of HRC’s use of a private email server with poor cyber-security to transact government business, of which much was in the public interest.

The episode brings viewers up to date with HRC’s decision to campaign for the US Presidency in 2016 and her campaign’s emphasis on gender politics, portraying HRC as a champion for feminism and a victim of institutional misogyny, and especially of her Republican rival Donald Trump (with whom the Clintons had previously been friendly), while saying nothing about what her campaign actually stood for in the eyes of the voting public. This narrative is pounded again and again in each of the episodes in this series. As might be expected, nothing is said about the women harmed by Bill Clinton while he was Governor of Arkansas and then US President by his actions toward them, or about his frequent trips to notorious financier Jeffrey Epstein’s private island for trysts with underage teenage women.

The breathless format of the series, in which viewers are forced to sit through constant swinging from HRC’s 2016 Presidential campaign to particular episodes of her earlier life and back again, might be designed deliberately to sweep viewers off their feet into a rollercoaster ride through HRC’s life, not allowing them to step back and have the distance to view HRC’s life, decisions and actions more dispassionately and critically. HRC is constantly portrayed as a fighter and battler to get where she is when in fact it would seem much has actually been handed to her through her husband’s associations and past career. Significantly the series ignores much of her career as New York state senator or US Secretary of State – because the truth is, she achieved nothing worth celebrating that fits in with a paradigm that sees her as a feminist champion and achiever. Her major achievements have actually brought ruin, chaos, violence and death to many millions of people around the world.

The attempts to smear Donald Trump with accusations of Russian collusion to gain the US Presidency and Russian President Vladimir Putin as a soulless character who will always be nothing more than a KGB man, with no evidence to back up such insults, demonstrate the shallowness of Burstein’s subject. That Burstein simply agrees with HRC and follows along, instead of probing these issues and challenging HRC, reveals the series as essentially propaganda of a very mediocre standard. HRC herself is an uninteresting subject for a documentary: smug, self-serving and expecting the world to revolve around her.

Hillary (Episode 3: The Hardest Decision): more fawning over a despicable subject

Nanette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 3: The Hardest Decision)” (2020)

Purporting to show how Hillary Rodham Clinton became a feminist icon to millions of women (and quite a few men) around the world, this episode in the four-part hagiography by Nanette Burstein does little more than portray its uninteresting subject as a victim of reactionary politics and malign forces in US politics. The hardest decision of the episode’s title that HRC makes turns out to one facing most women at some point in their marriages or equivalent unions: when a partner has been unfaithful, and moreover dallied with a number of women over the years of married life, should the cuckolded partner forgive the errant one, and stay together, or should the cuckold leave the one who did wrong? Even when HRC does make that decision, seeing how it benefits both HRC and Bubba is hard: neither HRC nor any of her 2016 Presidential campaign staff is asked any hard questions as to whether HRC’s forgiveness of her husband was a good idea to have undertaken in the past 20 or so years.

The episode sketchily yet smoothly covers the period of Bubba’s involvement with White House intern Monica Lewinsky in its coverage of the political events, bombshells and scandals that pushed HRC out in front before blinking audiences. Nothing is said about how sex scandals and other related activities might have affected HRC’s rise to a position and influence during the mid to late 1990s. In-between significant events and trends during her husband’s years in the US Presidency, one might have expected to see how HRC learned to stand on her own feet away from the shadow of Bubba’s Presidency and the scandals associated with it. What happens here instead is that HRC exploits gender-based identity politics to elevate her own position and launch her campaign for the US Presidency in 2016 with the help of starry-eyed acolytes and advisors whose interviews here are little more than gushing praise for the woman.

A more sober, objective and energetic documentary portraying HRC and her influence on US politics and foreign policy will have to wait many more years. How she manipulated and exploited identity politics for her benefit, the role that mainstream news media in the US and elsewhere played in colluding with her in that manipulation, allowing her to escape prosecution for various crimes, and the malign effect such manipulation had on the American electorate and the feminist movement in the US, to the extent that huge numbers of people were prepared to vote for her simply because she was a woman, ignoring her lack of policies that would actually help the poor and disadvantaged sections of the US population, is an issue Burstein is blind to. Above all, in spite of her attempts to sanctify HRC by denigrating her campaign opponent Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign debates, odious as he was then (and still is), Burstein still is unable to show how and why HRC lost what should have been a winnable election against a politically inexperienced outsider.

Hillary (Episode 2: Becoming a Lady): on the road to smug notoriety

Nanette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 2: Becoming a Lady)” (2020)

This episode continues to cover Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life from the time hubby Bubba Bill decides to campaign for the US Presidency in 1992 after serving five terms as Governor of Arkansas to the Whitewater real estate investment controversy that dogged the couple during Bubba’s first term as President. As in the first episode, the events of the early to mid-1990s are interspersed with the events of HRC’s 2016 Presidential campaign during its early run from when HRC bad-mouths Democrat rival Bernie Sanders to Super Tuesday in early March and a bit beyond that. These events are recounted by HRC herself and her campaign aides in a narrative that flatters the woman and paints her as a victim of bullying by the Republican Party and forces in US society antagonistic to the idea of a First Lady who is anything but submissive and content to stay at home in the White House supervising interior decorations and the garden design. Director Burstein rarely if ever challenges her subject on any aspect of what they discuss that does not only conform to a pre-arranged script of HRC as a righteous saintly type badly treated by reactionary forces in US society but is significant in its own right because of the light it casts on HRC’s behaviour then when the issue was current and on her behaviour since that time.

By presenting herself as a victim of malign misogynistic individuals and groups, and portraying herself as a feminist champion and pioneer, HRC comes off as self-absorbed and smug. Her aides are worshipful and adoring. Few of director Burstein’s interviewees ever stop to wonder whether HRC’s own personality and behaviour might be factors contributing to her unpopularity, the constant put-downs and smears against her reputation. As a result, Burstein’s film is less documentary, and more fawning hagiography. I hazard that many years, perhaps even decades, will have to pass before a more balanced and sober account of HRC’s life and the damage she has inflicted on US politics and society since she became a Senator for New York state in 2001 can be done.

Hillary (Episode 1: The Golden Girl): early years of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life receive glowing treatment

Nannette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 1: The Golden Girl)” (2020)

Ostensibly a four-part series on the life and career of Hillary Rodham Clinton, this work is never more than a worshipful hagiography of the woman who, after nearly a complete Presidential four-year cycle, has still never accepted that she was and will always be the least favoured of two unlikeable candidates for the US Presidency in late 2016. The series takes the form of interviews conducted by Burstein (never seen, though her voice can be heard) of HRC and various aides who have worked for her over the decades, including those aides who worked for her 2016 Presidential campaign.

Episode 1 “The Golden Girl” follows HRC’s life from her childhood growing up in a staunch Republican family in a comfortable middle class neighbourhood through her college years in the 1960s, during which she worked as a volunteer for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964, to postgraduate studies at Yale University Law School where she met Bill Clinton, whom she married and followed to Arkansas where she taught in the law faculty at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. The episode then runs through Bill Clinton’s early political career, starting with his tenure as Attorney General for Arkansas and then his time as Governor of Arkansa, the latter during which HRC not only continued as a partner in Rose Law Firm (which she joined in the late 1970s) but also tackled education reform and was successful in establishing teacher testing and state standards for curricula and classroom sizes.

Inserted into the narrative of HRC’s early years are snapshots of her Presidential campaign in 2016 and the various controversies relating to her time as Secretary of State during President Barack Obama’s first term (2009 – 2012) that resurfaced during her campaign, in particular her role in the infamous 2012 incident in which US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed during a terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi; and her use of a private server over which she conducted government business in violation of Federal laws forbidding the use of privately owned and run digital technologies to receive, send, work on and store emails containing government information. Disturbingly HRC and another interviewee breezily wave away the private server issue by saying that a previous Secretary of State, Colin Powell, also had a private server while holding the position. (Did he ever use this server to transact government business in the way HRC did?)

The constant theme throughout this episode, which HRC and other interviewees consistently bash into the TV audience’s ears and faces, is that HRC’s story parallels the rise of second-wave feminism and the fight for women’s rights from the 1960s onwards. In very many occasions HRC claims she was battling misogynistic prejudice against her for her education and achievements, and for wanting to retain her maiden name after marrying Bill. Viewers are misled into thinking HRC a significant leader in the fight for women’s rights and equality with men before the law. At the same time though, very little attention is given by Burstein or her interviewees on what the ordinary John and Jane Doe know of the Women’s Liberation Movement during the 1960s / 70s and what HRC’s role might have been in that movement, if she had ever participated in it at all.

Despite covering the life of the woman who would become a significant figure in US politics and culture in her own right, for better and for worse, the program makes its subject an uninteresting and dull figure. One would have thought that Burstein, an experienced film director, would try to encourage HRC to relax and try to project a warm personality. Instead HRC comes across as a self-absorbed woman, around whom the world supposedly rotates and does obeisance. Everything dragged into the film, whether it be the history of civil rights and rights for women, ends up revolving around HRC.

Of course, nowhere in this episode will we see much about the scandals that were to follow the Clintons like a bad smell: scandals like the Whitewater real estate investment controversy or HRC’s dabbling in the trading of cattle futures contracts while serving as First Lady of Arkansas. As a result, viewers will only get a slanted view of HRC as a dedicated feminist and a tough political fighter. The real HRC, with all her sociopathic qualities, is carefully polished to Teflon-like sheen.