Critic's Notebook: 'Trump's Showdown' on 'Frontline' Plays Like a Hollywood Political Thriller

Trump Showdown - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Frontline

Michael Kirk's latest 'Frontline' documentary chronicles the never-ending intrigues of the Trump administration.

If you've been paying even the slightest bit of attention to the news since the 2016 presidential election, the new Frontline documentary Trump's Showdown won't tell you much that you don't already know. And yet it somehow manages to be compulsively watchable even if you're familiar with every narrative twist and turn.  

That's because the Trump administration packs more drama into a typical week than most presidencies do in four years. Keeping up with the daily — make that hourly — headlines has become damn near exhausting, reducing the country's citizens to nervous wrecks no matter which side of the political spectrum they're on. (Although, to be fair, Trump supporters don't have to take nearly as much anti-anxiety medication.)

This latest effort from filmmaker Michael Kirk (Putin's Revenge, The Choice 2016, Divided States of America) concentrates on the nearly two-year battle between Donald Trump and the intelligence community that essentially began with the January 2017 Trump Tower meeting in which top officials briefed the president-elect on Russian interference in the election. It fell to then-FBI director James Comey to personally inform Trump of the infamous "Steele dossier" containing the salacious allegations about a supposed encounter with prostitutes involving…well, you know.

It was an inauspicious beginning for the relationship between Trump and the Justice Department that would only get worse. The details of the dossier, not surprisingly, soon leaked, and Trump was incensed, publicly likening the intelligence community to "Nazi Germany."

The film provides brief context about Trump's combative style that he learned from his mentor, lawyer Roy Cohn. During his business career, Trump was involved in no less than 4,000 lawsuits, including one in which his real-estate company was accused of systemic racism. Trump's modus operandi was to declare victory in all of them, especially the ones he lost.

Unfolding with the gripping pace of a Hollywood thriller — the pulse-pounding musical score certainly helps — the documentary delivers a concise and yet exhaustive account of a real-life political drama that includes one unprecedented incident after the other: Michael Flynn caught lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials and then having to resign; Trump's desperate efforts to enlist "loyalty" from Comey, who took copious notes after every sordid encounter; Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself, which has bedeviled Trump ever since; Trump deciding to fire Comey and then essentially implicating himself in what may well have been obstruction of justice; Trump's celebratory meeting afterward in the Oval Office with Russian officials, which only Russian journalists were allowed to cover; the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who has hounded Trump like Inspector Javert pursuing Jean Valjean. The story goes on and on, culminating in the Helsinki Summit press conference, in which Trump sided with Russia over his own intelligence agencies.

The doc includes incisive commentary from a gallery of journalists, Justice Department officials, Trump campaign associates and others. A former aide to Sessions describes how Sessions certified Trump's conservative bona fides because Sessions represents "the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for many conservatives." One journalist sums up her reaction to Trump's Oval Office meeting with Russian officials with a succinct "Oy!" A former Justice Department lawyer says anyone being investigated by Mueller "should be afraid…very afraid."

"Robert Mueller cares about one thing, and one thing only. Indicting bad guys and putting them in prison," another comments.

Although initially cooperative with the special counsel's investigation, Trump eventually got fed up and went on the attack, unleashing a series of derogatory tweets about the so-called "witch hunt" and bad-mouthing Mueller at every opportunity. "He doesn't need Roy Cohn, because he is Roy Cohn," one journalist points out about Trump. Mueller struck back in his typical sly and understated style, having Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announce the indictments of 12 Russian intelligence officers at the same time that Trump was meeting with Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle.

How this will all end is anybody's guess, although the midterm election will play a big part. "If Democrats take control of the House, they're going to be a subpoena-generating machine," a commentator observes. "At the end of the day, it's the American people who are going to decide Trump's fate," another declares.

One thing is certain. With more than two years left in Trump's term (presumably), there will be plenty more drama to come. Filmmaker Kirk and his collaborators will have scads of material from which to create more of these superb documentaries chronicling history even as we're still living it.