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‘American Chaos’ Film Review: Day-Late, Dollar-Short Doc Traces Trump’s Rise to the White House

After endless profiles in The New York Times about What Trump Voters Really Think, the last thing we need is a movie on the same subject

Last Updated: September 13, 2018 @ 5:48 PM

Were you aware that Donald Trump supporters made their choice because they believed that their needs — their identities — have gone too long unrecognized or disrespected by Democratic leaders? If somehow you weren’t, “American Chaos” might be the film that you need about the 2016 election.

Following in the footsteps of the fly-on-the-wall “11/8/16,” a dozen or more other big- and small-screen documentary works, and the ever-expanding library of print profiles chronicling the president’s base’s feelings of cultural and political disaffectedness, filmmaker James D. Stern delivers his own version of this now extremely familiar story, that of Trump’s ascendance through the eyes of a liberal voter, one who never thought in a million years that Hillary Clinton would lose when he compassionately decided to offer a platform for their views.

Stern, a film producer (“Snowden”) and documentarian (“Every Little Step”), puts himself in front of the camera as he canvasses Trump supporters across the U.S. for their feelings about what made him such a lightning rod for “ordinary Americans” in the days leading up to the 2016 election. The Chicago native makes his incredulity about Trump’s candidacy clear early on, but also suggests that liberals like himself have been too contemptuous, or dismissive, of the issues that have rallied Red-State voters to his side. Consequently, and with the expectation that Trump will not prevail, he decides to “not yell at them, but to just listen to them” in exactly the same way that The New York Times and many others have as the events of his presidency have unfolded.

Occasionally adding his own perspective, alongside comments from a variety of experts in different fields (climate change, sociology, etc.), Stern attends viewing parties and watches from within rallies as Trump fires up his base with each new exaggeration or outright lie about Clinton’s compounding evil, virtually all of which has now become right-wing boilerplate. The individuals with whom he speaks range from conservative radio hosts to displaced West Virginia coal workers, each offering a slightly different answer but one sharing a common theme: They demand to be accommodated in an America where they do not need to accommodate anyone else. Gun control, coal production, border security, political corruption and xenophobia are among the issues that they consider important, but in almost all cases, their arguments are founded on a combination of specious information in terms both of the problem and its solution.

Meanwhile, the specter of Obama and his would-be successor Clinton is ever-present as a bogeyman to indoctrinate these simple small-town folk into a terrible, kinder, gentler world where they might have to acknowledge that the Great America they want re-made perhaps wasn’t for everyone quite the way they want to remember it.

Particularly just two weeks after the release of “Active Measures,” an essential documentary that draws explicit lines between Putin’s rise to power and Trump’s evolution between the 1980s and today, the anecdotal approach of “American Chaos” feels positively quaint by comparison. Like many of its other well-intentioned brethren, including “11/8/16,” Stern’s film basically serves as a chronicle of one liberal’s disbelief and disillusionment as election night dashes all of his ideals about the progress he thought our country had made.

Almost two years later, though, who needs or wants to see that? For those people, the news cycle is a nonstop horror show of inhumanity, so a Ralph Wiggum-style freeze frame of the moment their hearts first broke is probably unwelcome. And as evidenced by a series of Skype conversations conducted post-election, his subjects feel validated and their support of Trump is stronger than ever, so who cares how their opponents feel?

In which case, perhaps “American Chaos” — whose self-parodic title would fit in perfectly with the name of some fake movie by Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who Is America” alter ego Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello — should serve as an object lesson for liberal filmmakers, if not also liberals themselves. Maybe don’t wait for two years into Trump’s presidency to release your portrait of the people who put him in office; both you, and your viewers, know who they are now. Bank that footage and wait until after it’s over, whatever happens, and then go back and find your subjects and ask them how they feel about their candidate and his accomplishments in office in relation to their needs and priorities. Did he bring back your job as a coal worker? Has he secured the borders and made you feel safer? Has his rampant criminality undermined or made you question your support for Trump? Has he brought back the America you believe was great? Do you now feel heard and recognized?

Ultimately, “American Chaos” isn’t bad, it’s just kind of too late to do any real good. As Stern himself observes, Trump supporters “want to take America back to a time that no longer is viable,” but that’s basically what all of these films want as well: a time before Trump. And just like all of the others by liberals about the election, Stern’s film desperately yearns for a redemptive or hopeful conclusion for what amounts to them to a waking nightmare. But the only way to achieve that conclusion is, unfortunately, to wait for it and, where possible, take the steps of policy and strategy to make it happen.

Until then, what we probably need are fewer reflective post-mortems on history that’s already been decided, much less covered exhaustively in every available medium, and a little more holding of feet to the fire of truth — in which case, start with the soul-searching filmmakers, move on to their subjects, and then, try to make real progress from there.