Oscars: How This Year's Doc Contenders Tackle Life in Trump's America

'The Final Year,' 'LA 92' and more features tell the real story of what's happening in the country (the rising racial divide, the inaction on climate change) and the world (especially Syria).
Illustration by Alex Williamson; Courtesy of Sundance Institute/Peter Nicks (Force), Mikhail Svetlov (Putin), Brett Carlsen (Trump), Michael B. Thomas (Protest), Scott Olson (Sign), all Getty Images; Courtesy of TIFF (Final), Paramount Pictures/Jensen Walker (Inconvenient), Netflix (ICarus, Strong), Showtime (Risk)

There is no rule mandating that a documentary must address breaking news. Indeed, many of the best docs of all time do not. But in 2017, a year in which a record 170 films are eligible for the best documentary feature Oscar, it just so happens that a significant number of outstanding docs do address current events head-on. And they can be very helpful in understanding this bizarre moment in time at the beginning of the Donald Trump era.

How did we wind up with President Donald Trump? Well, in a big-picture sense, one could argue that the Celebrity Apprentice host's victory would not have been possible without the election, 36 years earlier, of the first president to emerge from the world of pop culture — Ronald Reagan, whose keen understanding of the importance of celebrity and optics is at the center of Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez's The Reagan Show.

More directly, significant credit — or blame — must be given to Roger Stone, the veteran political operative at the center of Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme's Get Me Roger Stone, in which Trump and the newly indicted Paul Manafort, among others, gush over the shadowy work of the notorious "dirty trickster." Then there's WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who facilitated the steady release of Hillary Clinton's hacked emails and is the subject of Risk; he granted Oscar winner Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) unparalleled access to him over a seven-year period. And don't forget Russia, the cheating and intimidating tendencies of which are the focus of Bryan Fogel's Icarus, which began as an exploration of sports doping and ended with the filmmaker being hacked and his subject facing threats, ostensibly from the Kremlin.

What was lost in replacing Barack Obama's administration with Trump's? Well, for one thing, an appreciation of America's standing in and obligations to the rest of the world — at least that's the main takeaway from Greg Barker's The Final Year, which capitalized on unprecedented access to an incumbent national security team, during its waning days of power, to show diplomacy in action. Most memorably and frighteningly, the film captures the shock and fear of Team Obama on election night as they realized that many of their hard-won victories likely would be erased by his successor. Meanwhile, the experience of Election Day, for average Americans across the country, is documented in 11/8/16, which counts Oscar winner Daniel Junge among its 18 directors.

And what of the impact of Trump's actions — or inaction — during the year since he won?

Domestically, thanks in no small part to his handling of everything from mass incarceration and the reimplementation of mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug offenses to professional athletes' protests, racial tensions are worse than at any time since the L.A. riots of 25 years ago— an event that's the focus of two docs from past Oscar winners: John Ridley's Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992, and Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin's LA 92.

Meanwhile, Peter Nicks' The Force shows what it's like to be a cop in Oakland, California, during times of racial unrest. Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis' Whose Streets? profiles people who protested cops after an officer killed an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri. And Yance Ford's Strong Island offers a personal look at how his brother's murder impacted his family, while critiquing the "reasonable fear" defense used by the man who killed his brother — and by many others since.

LGBTQ issues also are back front and center, with Trump fighting in the courts — unsuccessfully at the moment — to try to ban trans people from serving in the military, and some states continuing to push back against same-sex marriage. David France's The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson looks at the mysterious death of a trans person, while Barbara Kopple's This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous profiles a transitioning athlete. Eddie Rosenstein's The Freedom to Marry is a reminder of the decades-long campaign that led to the 2015 Supreme Court decision guaranteeing the right to same-sex marriage.

Internationally, Syria's civil war rages on, with Russia increasingly tipping the scale in favor of the incumbent regime. Oscar nominee Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested's Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS provides an overview of the crisis; Oscar nominee Evgeny Afineevsky's Cries From Syria also recounts the history of the civil war, with a special emphasis on its impact on the populace; Oscar nominee Matthew Heineman's City of Ghosts profiles citizen journalists risking their lives to keep the world's eyes trained on Raqqa; and Firas Fayyad's Last Men in Aleppo follows volunteer first-responders.

All the feature footage is at least as shocking as that of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps 72 years ago, which, at the insistence of then-Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, screened in American movie theaters. In that case, the objective was to promote the idea of "never again," but in this case, it is to remind people that this is happening now, while Trump stands by — even though Syria is contributing to a global refugee epidemic, which is the topic of Chinese activist Ai Weiwei's Human Flow.

And then there's climate change, about which Trump and many of his supporters are skeptics, if not outright deniers. Trump, who pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement that Obama negotiated, wants to preserve America's vanishing coal industry — witness Michael Bonfiglio's From the Ashes.

But as Jeff Orlowski's Chasing Coral, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk's An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, and David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg's Bill Nye: Science Guy all show in different ways — from time-lapse imagery to Power Point presentations to conversations with a charismatic nerd in a bow tie — science is real, and Trump's inaction may soon irreversibly impact the planet.

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AFTER O.J. WON, THE ACADEMY CHANGED THE RULES

Did O.J. get away with murder? In February, ESPN Films' seven-and-a-half-hour O.J.: Made in America won the best documentary feature Oscar. But some Academy members weren't convinced that it was principally created to be a film documentary. So the board of governors announced in April that "multipart or limited series are not eligible for awards consideration" and that the doc branch's executive committee will adjudicate close calls. The new rule may quash the Oscar hopes of some other docs, most notably Five Came Back, which profiles the role five Hollywood directors played during World War II. Netflix screened Five in a few theaters in March as a 187-minute film, concurrent with its TV streaming debut, where it appeared in three parts. Should Netflix still try to qualify it, the Academy, per its new rule, would likely say no. 

This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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