'White Noise': Film Review

White Noise Still 1 - AFI Docs Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of AFI Docs
Losers on parade.

Daniel Lombroso's documentary profiles three leading figures of the alt-right movement.

To make his feature documentary about the rise of the alt-right movement, Daniel Lombroso embedded himself and became friendly with three of its leading figures. For that, he deserves our sympathy. As his film vividly demonstrates, Richard Spencer, Mike Cernovich and Lauren Southern are not exactly charming company. The upside is that White Noise, receiving its virtual world premiere at AFI Docs 2020, reveals its three principal subjects for the fools and charlatans they are.

The film begins with footage of white nationalist Spencer taking a much-publicized victory lap after Trump's victory in the 2016 election. During his speech, Spencer shouts "Hail, Trump!" to a roomful of his jubilant supporters, some of whom respond by making Nazi salutes. You almost expect them to break into a rousing rendition of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me."

Spencer seems sincere in his hateful convictions, unlike Cernovich, who comes across as a scheming opportunist willing to come up with whatever provocations he can to make a buck. Cernovich first became known as an anti-feminist and "men's rights" activist. He then morphed into a conspiracy theorist, making an even bigger name for himself with shameless lies about Hillary Clinton, among others. Now, he seems somewhat at a loss. "I don't know what my agenda is," he admits at one point. "Mischief making?"

Then there's Southern, a perky Canadian YouTube star in her early 20s whose favorite targets are feminism and immigration. "I'm fighting for my generation," she claims, none too convincingly, as she walks around Toronto and decries, "I literally could not see a single European face."

The film essentially has us hang out with this motley trio as they promote their increasingly tattered brands, which proves luridly fascinating, if not fully illuminating. Spencer finds his toxic espousal of white nationalism under attack as he's blamed for the violence in Charlottesville (he vigorously denies playing any role in the tragic circumstances) and gets shouted down by protesters during an appearance at the University of Florida. Much like his idol, Trump, he lapses into paroxysms of self-pity and victimhood. He also faces various legal issues, including a lawsuit over his role in the Charlottesville incident and charges of domestic abuse from his ex-wife. He's currently living in Montana with his mother.

The even whinier Cernovich complains that his hateful social activism just isn't profitable enough. Much like Alex Jones, for whom he's often served as a guest host on Jones' loony right-wing radio show, he resorts to marketing his own brand of vitamin supplements and skin care products. 

Southern, who has the sense to realize that her controversial media platform has a built-in shelf life, talks about giving up her political activism in a few years and getting married and starting a family. In the meantime, she continues her vicious anti-immigrant crusade, even though she finds herself sympathetic to African migrants whom she interviews in Paris.

Although she had earlier complained about the paucity of white people in the city in which she lives, Southern admits late in the film that her current boyfriend, with whom she's having a baby, is not white. "I don't think it would be endearing to put such an emphasis on that," she says, looking visibly uncomfortable.

All three disingenuously disavow playing any role in the growing incidence of hate crimes in America, even though their incendiary rhetoric clearly adds fuel to the fire.

The intimate portrait of these shameless provocateurs sheds a much-needed spotlight, especially for those who remain ignorant of the most rabid right-wing media. But the film, representing the first documentary to be produced by the magazine The Atlantic, is too shapeless and lacking in context to be as informative as it should. The result is that you come to feel uncomfortably familiar with its subjects, but not with the movement they represent. You walk away with the feeling that the "white noise" this trio makes is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Venue: AFI Docs 2020
Production: The Atlantic
Director-cinematographer: Daniel Lombroso
Producers: Daniel Lombroso, Kasia Cielplak-Mayr von Baldegg
Executive producers: Jeffrey Goldberg, Kasia Cielplak-Mayr von Baldegg
Editor: Carlos Rojas Felice
Composer: Gil Talmi

94 minutes