“#Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump” is a frightening documentary that can leave you scared to death about the prospect of Donald Trump remaining in the Oval Office a day longer than is absolutely necessary. It’s a cautionary tale that can offer some degree of insight into the mind of our commander in chief. But it’s also a political documentary that can make you wonder whether film is even the right medium with which to take on Trump, and whether a movie like this can connect with anybody who doesn’t already believe everything it has to say.
The film by director Dan Partland is timely, of course, hitting select theaters and virtual cinemas on August 28, at the end of the week of the Republican Convention, and heading to streaming and VOD on Sept. 1. And it is tied into current news: Its focus on psychoanalyzing the president fits with the approach in Mary Trump’s recent book about her uncle, “Too Much and Never Enough,” while its use of George Conway as a prominent talking head coincides with Conway’s weekend announcement that he is stepping away from his work with the anti-Trump Lincoln Project while his wife, Kellyanne Conway, departs from her White House job so the couple can devote more time to family matters.
But that timeliness could in some ways be problematic for “#Unfit” — because today’s politics, particularly in the era of a Twitter-driven presidency and an around-the-clock barrage of revelation, accusation and condemnation, simply move too fast for any film to not seem a step or two behind the times.
(In a clear sign of how difficult it is to keep up with the news in a feature film, the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t even mentioned until 1 hour and 15 minutes into the movie, which also happens to be less than 10 minutes before it ends.)
“#Unfit” tries to make up for this by being deep and comprehensive, though it mostly does a stylish job of trotting out experts we’ve seen over the last three years on MSNBC and CNN and occasionally Fox News. And as the title suggests, it hitches its wagon to the idea of explaining Trump by using psychologists and psychiatrists to diagnose what they see as a clear case of malignant narcissism.
The most prominent of the psychiatrists is John Gartner, who spearheaded a 2017 petition in which mental health professionals attested that in their judgment, Trump was unfit for office. The first half hour of the film is devoted to making a detailed case that the president meets the clinical definition of malignant narcissism, a personality disorder made up of narcissism, paranoia, anti-social personality disorder and sadism.
When professionals who had not personally examined Trump have made this diagnosis in Gartner’s petition or in other forums, they’ve been criticized for breaking the American Psychiatric Association’s “Goldwater Rule.” That rule was instituted after the magazine Fact published a 1964 story in which more than 1,000 psychiatrists deemed presidential candidate Barry Goldwater “unfit to be president,” citing a variety of Freudian reasons such as “He’s never forgiven his father for being a Jew.”
Goldwater successful sued – and in “#Unfit,” Gartner approves of that verdict but says the Goldwater rule was meant only to stop “unfounded speculation, not knowledgeable conclusions” based on “observable behavior.” Diagnoses of Trump, he says, are entirely reasonable based on his actions – and, he adds, they would likely not be aided much by first-hand interviews, in which subjects are likely to lie.
Viewers who come to the film opposed to Trump – which, let’s face it, will be the vast majority of the audience – are likely to find this stretch of the film exhaustive and persuasive; Trump supporters who watch it will probably find fault both with the conclusions and with the ethics of reaching those conclusions.
But the psychological diagnosis is only the start of “#Unfit,” even though it’s the whole point of the film’s title. Partland moves from there to an array of interviews with government officials, former Trump aides, journalists and others – and while they are damning, they’re also the kind of things we’ve been hearing for years, often from these same people.
Sportswriter Rick Reilly, for example, goes into detail about how Trump cheats at golf, something he wrote a book about and has talked about in frequent interviews. Anthony Scaramucci blasts his old boss, just as he has been doing for the past year. Former naval officer Malcolm Nance argues credibly that Trump “does not believe in democracy” and that this is “a dangerous, dangerous time for the world,” which he has frequently said on MSNBC and other outlets.
Yes, it’s terrifying to hear everything together in a seamless, hard-hitting package, but is it fresh enough to jar anybody out of their entrenched positions in this divisive political climate? That’s a question that hangs over the bulk of the film, which ties Trump’s psychological profile to his authoritarian tendencies and then to the dangers those tendencies currently pose.
It’s also one of the ironies of “#Unfit” that immediately after Scaramucci points out that attacking Trump’s supporters is guaranteed to get them to rally behind him, the film starts comparing them to the citizens of Italy and Germany who helped Mussolini and Hitler rise to power.
No, those voters aren’t the target audience for this movie – instead, they’re the ones of which one expert explains, “Once you get on board, there is no rational argument that will change your opinion.”
“#Unfit” feels like a rational argument, and a powerful one. But if it’s liable to scare lots of people who already oppose Trump, it doesn’t feel as if it will change anybody’s opinion.