Lights, camera, no action as plug is pulled on two Hillary Clinton films
Documentary maker Charles Ferguson says he encountered near-omerta from Clinton camp
Former US president Bill Clinton with his wife, former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, during the Clinton Global Initiative in New York last month. Photograph: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
Not coming to a screen, big or small, near you are two films that were commissioned by television networks CNN and NBC about the life of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady and frontrunner for the Democratic presidential candidacy should she decide to run for the White House.
On Monday, Charles Ferguson, the Oscar-winning documentary maker behind Inside Job, the scorching critique of Wall Street and the causes of the 2008 financial crisis, said he was withdrawing from a CNN documentary about Clinton after pressure from her camp and Republicans.
Stonewalled in his attempts to get various Clintonistas to agree to go on camera for interviews, Ferguson, a donor to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, abandoned the project.
Writing for the Huffington Post website, he said he encountered a near-omerta when he requested access from Clinton’s people to make the documentary.
“When I approached people for interviews, I discovered that nobody, and I mean nobody, was interested in helping me make this film,” he wrote. “Not Democrats, not Republicans – and certainly nobody who works with the Clintons, wants access to the Clintons or dreams of a position in a Hillary Clinton administration.”
Asked to comment on Ferguson’s claims of stonewalling, a press adviser to Clinton, Nick Merrill, told the USA Today newspaper in an email: “Lights, camera, no reaction.”
Shortly after Ferguson’s announcement, NBC went public to say that it was dropping plans for a drama mini-series, Hillary, which would have starred Diane Lane as Bill Clinton’s wife.
Despite being three years away, there is constant media speculation and cocktail-party chatter in Washington about whether Hillary will run.
Clinton herself is continuously asked, as the media craft ever more creative ways to pose the question to try to inveigle a Yes or No answer out of her.
CNN correspondent Sanya Gupta, at the Clinton foundation’s meeting in New York last month, asked “how important” it would be for the US to elect a female president during a panel discussion. The question drew laughs, including from Clinton.
It “would be a very strong statement,” she replied, but not before saying she would be “taking myself totally out of it” when answering the question.
The media attention on Clinton has been intense even though she has not held a public role since February when she stood down as secretary of state.
There was a publicity black- out around her until last month when she gave an interview to New York magazine. Despite the length of the article, she still gave no definitive answer on whether she would stand again, although her aides said she would.
The New Republic and the New York Times, which has assigned a reporter to cover her exclusively, ran investigative articles in the past two months on the Clintons’ connections with Bill’s former aide Doug Band, the Clinton family’s philanthropic foundation and Band’s corporate advisory firm Teneo.
The articles have centred on how Teneo has used its ties with the Clintons and their foundation to generate business from big donors.
They have included references to the involvement of Irish businessman Declan Kelly, who is the chairman, chief executive and co-founder (along with Band) of Teneo. Kelly – (whose brother Alan is Labour TD for Tipperary North) – has made no public comment in or about the articles but is believed to view them as political witch-hunts against the Clintons.
Ferguson might have covered similar ground. He said he had wanted to explore in his documentary how the Clintons had built up their personal wealth and attracted powerful donors to their foundation.
With plenty of potential 2016 candidates out in the field, there is still everything to play for. In such a delicately poised environment, both sides of the aisle in US politics recognise the lasting effect that a film could have on an electorate pondering one candidate or others in a bitterly fought campaign.
Some Republicans saw NBC’s part-fictional account of Clinton’s life as a free “infomercial” for a probable presidential candidate. Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, described the films as a “thinly veiled attempt at putting a thumb on the scales of the 2016 presidential election”.
On the other side, Clinton aides opposed them because of potentially negative portrayals.
The decisions by CNN and NBC this week will not mean Clinton won’t see films being made about her.
The conservative group Citizens United, which produced an anti-Hillary film during her 2008 presidential campaign featuring right- wing commentators, said this week that it was proceeding with plans to produce another documentary on Clinton for public release in 2016.
The New York Times reported that a third biographical and more personalised portrayal, entitled Rodham, about Clinton’s time as a lawyer during the Watergate era, was moving towards production.
Ms Clinton may yet have to watch a screen portrayal of herself, probably through her fingers.