Film Review: American Chaos

Agonized liberal filmmaker James D. Stern serves as an impressively restrained, seemingly impassive and neutral 2016 pre-election road-trip guide into America’s pro-Trump territories.
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James Stern, a former hedge-fund success and longtime politics nerd who for nearly two decades has been chairman and CEO of Endgame Entertainment (An Education, Snowden, the upcoming Robert Redford starrer The Old Man & the Gun), is a dedicated Democrat. With American Chaos, he confronts, in the months leading up to the 2016 Presidential election, what so many thought impossible—a Trump victory? Really? Only in the movies!

As the doc’s interviewer, he deserves an imagined Oscar in the category of Best Doc Performance Faking an Impartial Investigator. Displaying amazing sangfroid, this “Kennedy Democrat” rules as curious, patient, affable and gently probing while querying a swath of ardent Trump supporters. Equally important, he’s also unsurpassed as a listener. (There’s a lesson here.)

Viewers on both sides of the aisle will get an earful and eyeful that amounts to much food for thought. Hopefully, those who understand how much has gone wrong will ferret out some correctives. They are there.

Stern was initially certain, like most in the thinking world, that Hillary Clinton would take the race. But he soon became an early adopter of serious doubt after detecting ominous signs that Trump was gaining traction and could actually win the Presidency.

From a prominent Chicago family that always talked politics at the dinner table (his older brother Todd Stern spearheaded the Paris climate talks for Obama), Stern took action (and time off), taking to the road with a small crew to interview Trump fans in a kind of cinematic ticking-clock structure that leads to that fateful November 8th/9th, 2016 election night when unforeseen tragedy struck.

Stern’s itinerary took him to Florida, Cleveland (for the Republican convention, where he conned his way to schmoozing access and a good seat), West Virginia coal-mining country and Arizona. Going south, midwest and southwest, he got a broad sampling—geographically and across socioeconomic classes—of interviewees.

In Florida, for instance, his subjects included a wealthy Jewish Boca Raton businessman; a feisty former New Yorker and now a female talk-radio host who knew Trump back in the day (and is clearly smitten by him); a small-town mayor and a former Cuban immigrant.

The gripes in all regions often reflect ignorance, prejudice and self-interest (of the navel-gazing kind). In rare cases, the Trump backers express near-reasonable and understandable thoughts. Referring to the tightening of immigration policies, one Trump supporter succinctly proclaims he “wants to know who’s here.” Another complains that in the old days “we had to learn about America and did” and another shares his “suspicion” that “Muslim is not a religion but an ideology.”

Arizona ranchers of Republican persuasion on the Mexican border make a refreshingly intelligent and convincing case for tighter border control. (That cursed wall doesn’t enter this picture.)

Meanwhile, Trump is seen as someone “real,” a get-it-done guy. Also truly real is the poverty Stern shows in a West Virginia town stricken by the demise of the coal mines. Former miners, of course, are Trump fans because they want to go back to work. And amidst so much fog, there is some truth, though misplaced, to one financially strapped supporter’s notion that “Trump is a billionaire, so he knows something about money.” Gun supporters are also out in full force and seem to be everywhere.

In Arizona, a seemingly sweet elderly woman and another who brags about being Mensa-smart both wave the Trump flag. The former has been put off by “voter fraud,” for which she somehow sees Trump as the antidote. Several supporters are just “tired of politicians,” an attitude that did serious damage to Clinton, who takes a lioness’ share of the nasty, ugly bashing here, as does her “private server” and even her fashion sense. (At the Cleveland convention, a female Trump fan declares to Stern that “Hilary is the devil in a pantsuit.”

For some sanity, tour guide Stern detours for some expert input: A UCLA sociologist notes that Trump has successfully reached out to “people who believe they have lost out” and they are many. And a University of Chicago climate expert assures, as has been amply reported, that scientists have the statistics that support negative climate change.

Some sobriety in this whole matter also comes from the doc’s observations that “passion beats pragmatism” and, less sobering, “America is just looking for someone [a President] it wants to have a beer with.” The doc teems with people, their views, and clues to a mammoth problem to be solved.

American Chaosmay not provide clues regarding how to, uh, right the minds of these American right-wingers, many of whom will continue to harbor prejudice and brim with hatred. But there are clues suggesting how to better mobilize those who care about reversing so much damage done.

Thus, and maybe as Stern intended, his doc becomes a fascinating treasure hunt that really matters in today’s troubled world. But, like Stern, viewers will need to be careful listeners because, as he puts it, he found so many people along his travels that felt they just weren’t being heard. So listen up, America, as Stern (and Michael Moore with his pre-election release Fahrenheit 11/9) weigh in.