Are you ready for yet another fictional dramatization of the life of a prominent Democrat?
Lifetime network is unveiling The Young Hillary Diaries, a light-hearted web series that depicts the young Hillary Rodham running for president of her high-school class in October 1964, up against boorish opponent “Ronald Stump.”
To judge from the two trailers that Lifetime has released, the series may be a little goofier than expected, featuring lots of quick cuts to historical footage from 1964 and earlier eras. The butt of the joke is the social mores of the time period, although perhaps young Hillary is meant to come across as a little too intensely earnest and transparently ambitious: “The most important part of my day is saluting the flag of this great country,” she tells her diary.
The series clearly isn’t meant to be even remotely biographical. When Clinton was 18 in 1964, she worked on the presidential campaign of conservative Republican Barry Goldwater. It’s her early life reimagined with a lot of heavy-handed foreshadowing of events that the audience already knows will come later and allegedly ironic lines of dialogue that would probably be better delivered with a wink to the camera. It’s sort of like a Star Wars prequel.
So if the series isn’t meant to be biographical or to inform the audience about her actual early years, what is it meant to do? Clearly, it aims to make you feel a certain way about Hillary Clinton.
The Young Hillary Diaries continues the trend of Hollywood’s creative class enthusiastically presenting the lives of their favorite political figures as Joseph Campbell–esque heroic narratives. When reality doesn’t quite match the traditional story needs, they’ll just invent the details the story requires. (The children’s book Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls Are Born to Lead is a classic example of airbrushing and rewriting history.)
Telling stories as they actually happened is too messy, discomforting, or ideologically inconvenient for many people in Hollywood’s creative class to endure.
It was just in August that theatergoers were offered Southside with You, a fictionalized version of the first date between Barack and Michelle Obama. The film selected an odd, perhaps unworkable choice for a romantic drama. The audience knows this couple is going to end the movie together and the film is obvious hagiography, so there’s no narrative tension or drama. Part of every compelling hero’s journey is overcoming some internal flaw — fear, overconfidence, lack of empathy — or some external obstacle.
Before Southside with You, there was Truth, in which a heroic Dan Rather and Mary Mapes were beset by network executives eager to protect President Bush and nefarious bloggers working in their pajamas. In 2010, moviegoers were offered Fair Game, in which Sean Penn’s Joe Wilson and Naomi Watts’s Valerie Plame are set up and hung out to dry by shadowy CIA agents. Richard Armitage, the official who actually leaked Plame’s name to columnist Bob Novak, never appears in the film.
Before that, we had the 2012 HBO film Game Change, dramatizing and reenacting events the audience had seen just four years earlier, and the creative team’s spiritual prequel, the 2008 HBO film Recount, dramatizing and reenacting the 2000 election’s end.
In films like these that recreate recent public events, there’s a bit of fun seeing how well actors can emulate figures we already know well — Ed Harris raises his arms a bit too much as John McCain, Tom Wilkinson is a little too beefy to pull off James Baker, Penn looks and sounds nothing like Joe Wilson. But the performances are almost beside the point. They’re caricatures, sometimes stretched beyond recognition for the sake of each story’s heavy-handed message.
The message is usually pretty simple: Democrats are smart, brave, warm, and decent. Republicans are acting out a Shakespearean tragedy, consumed by ambition, arrogant, ruthless, raging, and craven.
#related#In Game Change, the creative team added scenes and dialogue that weren’t in the book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, scenes that the 2008 campaign’s participants say never happened, then insisted the film was “completely accurate and truthful and representing what happened.” Fake but accurate, as a New York Times headline characterized of the memos in the Rathergate scandal.
The film The Man who Shot Liberty Valance offered the memorable line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Movies shape public perceptions in ways that mere journalism can’t. Telling stories as they actually happened is too messy, discomforting, or ideologically inconvenient for many people in Hollywood’s creative class to endure. So they print the legend.