Film Review: 11/8/16

From coal miners to college activists, the 16 subjects followed by this mosaic documentary over Election Day 2016 weave a tapestry of inchoate worry and boundless optimism that sums up where America is right now.
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The disputatious and fractured omnibus documentary 11/8/16 nibbles at too many stories in too short a time to make the one great American tale it seems to be aiming for. There are glimmers of larger import here, various signifiers of this or that impulse from a certain slice of the electorate. But much like the news media in its breathless coverage of the 2016 presidential election, its onslaught of 16 points of view creates more of a cacophony than anything else.

Unlike most “day in the life”-styled projects, this ambitious and occasionally insightful documentary orchestrated by Jeff Deutchman is less about the differences between people and places he captured but about their different reactions to a single polarizing event. Deutchman ropes together footage shot by 16 different crews around the country as their subjects held their breath during Election Day 2016. (Deutchman produced a similar project back in 2010; 11/4/08 was a portrait of reactions to the election of Barack Obama.)

The crews that fanned out across the country did a respectable job of locating as decent a cross-section of the electorate as you could find in 16 people. There are representatives of prototypical supports of each candidate: the resentful pro-Trump West Virginia coal miner who grumbles about news anchors supposedly saying “rural voters” in a way that insinuates they’re uneducated; and the Ohio college student and Clinton organizer who emotionally relates that “it’s never been so personal.” Just about all of them are fully dug into their positions; by definition, the movie skews towards the heavily committed.

Almost no matter who the subject is, though, anxiety is the word of the day. There is the pro-Clinton Dreamer who doesn’t seem sure what will happen next if Trump wins, saying that he’s “too Mexican for Americans and too American for Mexico.” A veteran from Miami suffering from PTSD cycles through a few half-reasons he supports Trump—"I just cannot relate to [Clinton]” and a belief in the supposed usefulness of Trump’s sociopathic behavior are apparently key. Just about the only interviewees not suffering from worry are the Massachusetts Trump supporter who gleams with reflected pride anytime his candidate comes up and blithely says things like “I don’t think a guy like Trump needs to rape a woman.”

As 11/8/16 ticks through the hours of the day, from eager morning anticipation to punchy post-midnight fretting, the filmmakers give most of their subjects a moment or two to state their case (excepting the professionals like the Los Angeles Times political editor, Philadelphia news-radio host and Clinton campaign worker). But generally the candidates and the issues they pushed are mere shadows here. The conversations we hear are generally those about resentment (the West Virginian who thinks Clinton “just doesn’t like us”) or fear about what the next day will bring. The Trump supporters are by far the most optimistic—for whatever reason, Deutchman has only voters from that camp here, and no GOP activists or media types to push the message—believing their candidate to be possessed of near-magical powers.

The subjects who voice the strongest arguments are generally the ones who have checked out of the whole fandango and are watching from the sidelines. A gleefully cantankerous older man running on a third-party ticket for lieutenant governor in Vermont knows he doesn’t have a chance but wants to provide an alternative anyway. An activist from upstate New York confidently announces that voting is simply participating in a rigged system—though even he starts looking nervous as the votes for Trump continue to roll in.

Clearly, a great part of that day’s story is the shocking upending of the narrative in which the more experienced Clinton sails to victory against the ramshackle and racist Trump campaign. Those moments are captured in 11/8/16 as they unfold with an understated sense of drama; you can almost hear the jaws hitting the floor. But somebody watching this movie without much historical or political knowledge might be baffled as to the extent of the pain felt by the Clinton supporters—why so many tears over just losing an election? As the movie winds to a close, its all-too-frequently superficial interviews become more frustrating.

This is not to say that Deutchman was under any obligation to bend all these voices toward a single symphony. But a little more orchestration might have been a more rewarding take on such a momentous subject.

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