Want to know what trumps news fatigue? Political documentary fatigue.
Since the election, doc after doc has been released and promoted, each one jockeying to be the conclusive—or at least the most impactful—purveyor of What The Hell Happened. This subgenre’s most recent installment is American Chaos, an earnest and engaging effort that still fails to add much to the conversation.
The documentary’s director, narrator, and central subject lies in Jim Stern, an accomplished film (Looper) and theater (Hairspray) producer and staunch Democrat. From the outset, Stern presents himself as an avatar of the metropolitan liberal mindset: willful, vaguely neurotic, and sincerely bewildered by anyone who doesn’t share his beliefs. “He can’t win. America’s not gullible enough,” he says, seated at his Los Angeles home desk, a book with a spine that reads BOBBY KENNEDY tossed conspicuously in front of him. “I’m a political junkie,” he continues, as the camera pans to a framed picture of Stern beaming next to Obama. “I always know what’s going on. Except now. Now I feel like I’ve lost my way.”
In an effort to fathom the unfathomable, Stern decides to venture out to new frontiers: the American red states. Of course, a lot of Stern’s ignorance is affected for the benefit of his single-minded liberal target audience. Exaggerating his illiteracy in conservative ideals allows his ultimate story arc—from unfamiliarity to awareness, intolerance to (semi) respect—to read more convincingly. “The thing to do is actually to listen,” Stern reflects over a montage of him packing a suitcase and ambling through LAX. “Not to argue with them and fight with them. Just take it in.”
This statement of intent is put to the test over Stern’s next six months, which he spends traversing Trumpland while time ticks down to the election. His first stop is Mar-a-Lago. No, not the inside of the estate. Weirdly, Stern just drives up to its gate to peer through the cracks before getting gently ushered away by security. The aim of the less-than-thrilling initial stop seems to be to convey Trump’s extreme wealth and gaudy ways of displaying it. “This is the guy who’s the man of the people? Who understands blue collar America?” demands Stern, gesturing toward the mansion.
From there, he proceeds to call on and interview a series of Floridian Trump supporters. A few are fairly prominent, like a former mayor and a conservator radio commentator, but most are just regular civilians. Seated in their living rooms, workplaces, and other haunts, the subjects unpack their attraction to the then-candidate: he’s real; he speaks his mind; he’s a savvy businessman; he’s not like other politicians; Hillary committed treason and should die for her sins; etc. True to his word, Stern mostly resists the temptation to argue, leaving ample space for the men and women (who are all white except for one man who immigrated from Cuba at age 11) to declare their allegiance to Trump and assert his supremacy.
Moving along, Stern pays a visit to the Republican Convention in Cleveland (where he feels as out of place as he did at “a Billy Joel concert where everyone was singing along but me”), a West Virginia coal town with an inactive mine, and a ranch in Arizona that spans thousands of acres along the Mexican border. Each stopover functions as an edifying lesson in Trump appeal. Residents of the struggling ex-mining town, many of whom have been out of work for years, blame Obama for the demise of the coal industry, despite the fact (pointed out in Stern’s voiceover) that clean energy is much more cost-efficient, and even if mining were to return in a big way, machine technology would replace manpower.
But the locals’ shaky logic is beside the point. What matters is their feeling of disenfranchisement—a mood that Trump, by acknowledging ex-miners and promising to bring back jobs, helped assuage. A similar state of mind reigns along the border, where ranchers complain of thousands of immigrants using their land to slip across on foot. For them, building a wall and adding patrolmen has a personal value. He may laze about in a ritzy estate, but Trump sure knew how to make certain working people, many of whom typically vote Democrat, feel seen and heard.
Periodically, Stern will cut away from the Trump-friendly testimonials to insert clips of talking head interviews with liberal academics—a hip, diverse array of professors and authors who clearly clash with the blinding whiteness of Stern’s conservative subjects. In another scene back in LA, Stern invites over a group of cool thirty-somethings—a gay couple, a guy in a motorcycle jacket, a woman with purple hair and a septum ring—to watch a presidential debate. We understand the intent: These are the people whom Trump voters fear are seizing all the country’s relevance and control. As the radio anchor says during her interview, “Now, you don’t have to want to be an American. We have to adjust to you, change our culture.”
One of the doc’s most fascinating revelations isn’t new or newsy at all: it derives from an old Western TV show called Trackdown, which aired on CBS between 1957 and 1959. What Stern finds perplexing is the show’s inclusion of an incendiary character named Walter Trump, who pulls up in the village to warn of an imminent doomsday and claims to be the townspeople’s only hope for salvation. His crazy decree? To build a wall.
It’s disappointing that this bizarrely clairvoyant mid-century TV reference is among the doc’s most intriguing offerings. Many of the rest, like Stern coming to terms with the fact the majority of Americans suffer from problems much different than the ones plaguing his bohemian-filled LA living room, are more predictable.
The documentary ends with the election night itself, which Stern watches unfold from a Florida bar while sipping on a salted margarita and trying not to cry. For us, reliving the night feels as needlessly distressing as you might expect. But that isn’t Stern’s fault. His final message—that history ebbs and flows and nobody should ever feel shut out of it—isn’t groundbreaking, necessarily. But it’s hopeful and heartfelt. And sometimes plain old hope is the most you can hope for.
American Chaos opens theatrically September 14.