'Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time': Film Review | Sundance 2017
Journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin follow the horse race in a straightforward, nothing-new-here recap of 2016's election.
If you recently returned to the U.S. after a year-long Peace Corps stint in a remote village with no electricity or mail service, then Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time will serve as a reasonable primer on the nightmare you missed.
For everyone else, though, this doc, hastily assembled from footage shot for Showtime's The Circus, is useful only for masochists wanting to trudge through the muck all over again — or as a way to spend 100 minutes believing you're politically engaged, while doing absolutely nothing to change the country. Even those who were pleased with the events of Nov. 8 will find it redundant, unless they're looking for more evidence of the mainstream media's cluelessness. Though it may well draw some eyeballs on Showtime, this disposable recap (directed by Banks Tarver, Ted Bourne and Mary Robertson) does nothing to fill the need for thoughtful, probing docs about the threats facing our democracy.
Promotional materials promise a "behind-the-scenes look" at the Trump campaign offering "unprecedented access," which is only slightly less misleading than Sean Spicer's description of inauguration crowds. Yes, it is true that the crew ventures twice onto Trump's jet, and that we follow him for a moment around the grounds of McVersailles (sorry: it's called Mar-a-Lago). But these are the kind of moments campaigns offer to lots of journalists at the level of Mark Halperin and John Heilemann (who, along with political advisor Mark McKinnon, host The Circus), and they tell us nothing we don't already know about the candidate. There isn't a single insight to be gleaned in this film, in fact, unless one is interested in the surprising number of eyeglass frames Heilemann owns.
What Trumped does offer is a brisk, no-nonsense summary of everything you spent the last year shaking your head at. It begins in earnest on Jan. 13, at a Trump campaign speech in Pensacola, Fla. After a few moments of familiar blowhard-ese, we cut to our three sage pundits, musing at the meaning of those big crowds. Then we're thrown into the Republican debates and the primaries that followed, watching as Trump fares better than expected and listening to the TV talking heads who try to make sense of it. Somewhere in this part of the story, the team gets a sit-down with Bernie Sanders, who makes a calm and cogent argument that America needs a news media capable of viewing elections as something other than sports or soap operas. Is there an unstated mea culpa in the filmmakers' decision to leave this complaint in the final cut? Hard to say.
Most of what follows is a chronological Greatest Hits of 2016's primary and general election campaigns: the blistering Romney speech denouncing Trump (reminding Sundancers of Mitt, the kind of political doc that justifies its existence); Trump claiming not to have a tiny penis; violence and intimidation at rallies; Access Hollywood; and so on. Now and then, the film takes a time out to visit Roger Stone, the dirty trickster who was once a Trump adviser.
As the tick-tock to Election night heats up, the film becomes less about those running for office and more about the journalists covering them. Even after dark on Nov. 8, Halperin is describing the "kabuki" theater of cable news hosts who have to go on air and pretend not to know what they and Halperin are sure of: Clinton won, and now all that's left is to predict her cabinet choices. Draw your own conclusions about a class of journalists who, well-intentioned and hard-working as they may be, are so addicted to public prognostication they can't see what's happening beyond their clique of inside sources.
Many would argue that Donald Trump didn't win the Presidential election; that Vladimir Putin didn't steal it; that James Comey's unprofessionalism didn't tip the scales. But that, instead, an out-of-touch Democratic Party handed over the keys to the country — not through "messaging" failures or an ill-considered "ground game," but by nominating a status quo insider who was hated by millions, distrusted by millions more, and thought by nearly everyone to be too chummy with the plutocrats who've made a joke of American democracy. With luck, several filmmakers out there are currently shooting interviews and doing research in an attempt to explain how this party fell so far. Now, those will be docs likely meriting slots at Sundance.
Production company: Left/Right
Directors: Banks Tarver, Ted Bourne, and Mary Robertson
Producer: Kevin Vargas
Executive producers: Mark Halperin, John Heilemann, Mark McKinnon, Banks Tarver, Ken Druckerman, Scott Boggins
Director of photography: Andrew Dunn, Laura Hudock, Matt Valentine, Cameron Glendenning, Thom Stukas, Oliver Anderson, Jeremy Gould
Editors: Alicia Ellis, Benji Kast
Composer: Paul Brill
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Doc Premieres)