Directed by: James Stern
Film Review by: Matt Weiner
As a documentary, American Chaos is in want of a natural constituency.
It arrives far too late to offer anything more meaningful than the endless series of “Trump country” news features, all of which confirm the noncontroversial point that the Republican base still supports its Republican candidate.
And the brief talking head interstitials with subject matter academics are both too pat to be targeted at Trump voters and too superficial to provide anything new for liberals that doesn’t confirm things they’ve already argued about back and forth on family Facebook threads.
As for the film itself, it’s similarly competent but trivial. Filmmaker and card-carrying liberal James Stern sets out in the months before the 2016 election to meet with Donald Trump supporters, hoping to discover for himself why so many people supported his candidacy. A fair number of the interviews offer genuine insight into the lives of apolitical voters—that is, the vast majority of people (on both sides) who don’t really care about following politics or policy as much as they have vaguely formed ideas around personalities and parties, and that’s enough to get by.
But we’ve had months of media profiles and years of political science research to tell us all this before. And Stern can’t help but inject himself into the debate, which takes the form of Sorkinesque appeals to hypocrisy and reason. It’s not that Stern is technically wrong when he pushes back—it’s that if he hasn’t learned by this point from his own interviews that there’s something else driving these voters than pithy speeches and fact checking and who “won” a debate, it makes you question just how much he’s been listening to the very people he claimed to want to hear out.
Stern’s documentary is an illuminating anatomy of what went wrong from a liberal perspective, but it’s probably not the one he intended to make. As the chronology races toward Stern’s one-two gut punch of Trump’s election and inauguration, he attempts to contextualize what’s happening to his worldview in light of the people he spent months interviewing.
One of his subjects sums up her political platform by exclaiming, “If the left is unhappy, that means I’m happy.” This is a more honest and accurate breakdown of the election and beyond in 2018 than anything explored by Stern, who spends his months traveling the country in a state of perpetual naivete and hashtag resistance outrage, unmoored and bereft of meaningful solutions from his party’s own milquetoast elite who, it turns out, were just as slow to adapt to a world where cultural grievance has subsumed political interests.
Tugging on that string and filming the visceral id that spills out would have had more to say about who we are as a country than the extended personal therapy session we wound up with instead.