Michael Moore’s documentary about Donald Trump will be hitting theaters soon, but another documentary about the startling Trump election arrives even earlier. American Chaos, directed by James D. Stern, takes a different approach to the unexpected turn of events. Like Moore, Stern was worried about Trump’s prospects well before the election. To delve into the tycoon's unpredictable rise, Stern traveled around the country beginning in the spring of 2016 to interview Trump supporters and try to comprehend their passionate devotion to a completely unqualified candidate.
Stern, a theater and film producer, comes from a liberal family, as he tells us early on; his brother was one of President Barack Obama’s top advisers on the environment. The director's goal with this film was to follow the advice of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (quoted by Obama in his farewell address in Chicago), who told his children that you can never really understand someone until you stand in his shoes. That was Stern's credo as he visited Florida, West Virginia and Arizona, in addition to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, in an effort to take the temperature of a variety of Trump supporters.
Most of the people he interviews are older white people, though there is also one older Cuban immigrant who came to the States in the 1950s and rails against illegal immigration. Unlike the combative, sarcastic Moore, Stern is an engaging presence on camera, and he tries to ingratiate himself with his interview subjects. Moore's confrontational approach does have its limitations, but Stern, by contrast, asks too many softball questions. He does challenge one woman who talks about voter fraud without any evidence, yet when a West Virginia man claims that Hillary Clinton might deserve the death penalty for committing treason, Stern looks dismayed but remains silent.
To present an alternative point of view, Stern interviews a few professors (mainly from UCLA) who discuss climate change, racism and sexism from a more progressive perspective. But the other interviewees — the Trump adherents — are treated too gently. The result is that Stern seems to give a forum to a lot of ignorant people without fully exposing their prejudices.
The biggest gap in the film is the failure to address the racism that motivated a lot of Trump supporters, even if they were not willing to acknowledge it. One person interviewed claims that Islam is not a "real" religion, but too many of the others are never questioned about the deep-seated prejudices that probably inflamed their embrace of a candidate who encouraged xenophobia and white supremacy. Trump's key advisers, like Steve Bannon, are never mentioned at all. The people interviewed speak about the economic reasons for supporting Trump, but the darker passions underlying their enthusiasm are skimmed over by the director. Stern criticizes Clinton for her reference to Trump partisans as "deplorables," which was indeed a major political gaffe, but the director never acknowledges that there was a kernel of truth in her characterization.
Despite these frustrating omissions, American Chaos is a well made film. It begins arrestingly, with newsreel footage of all the country's 20th century presidential campaigns. The locales that Stern visits are handsomely photographed by cinematographer Kevin Ford. Ford also co-edited the film with Rose Corr, and the pacing is sharp. Excerpts from a black-and-white TV show from the '50s that centered on a con man named Trump might be a bit forced, but they do add some welcome humor. Stern's melancholy on election night in 2016 is genuinely affecting, but despite some incisive footage en route to the depressing conclusion, the film ultimately leaves us feeling that the director has become a little too close to his subjects to probe as deeply as our national chaos requires. Once Fahrenheit 11/9 opens, this warmhearted film will be quickly forgotten.
Production company: Endgame Entertainment
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Director-screenwriter: James D. Stern
Producers: James D. Stern, Fernando Villena, Christopher C. Chen, Karen Bove
Executive producer: Eleanor Nett
Director of photography: Kevin Ford
Editors: Rose Corr, Kevin Ford
Music: Vincent Leslie Jones
Rated R, 90 minutes