The Washington Post’s media columnist Margaret Sullivan recently opined that there is “nothing more to learn from the die-hard Trump voters,” in what she called the media’s Endless Diner Series: “recidivistic journeys to the supposed heartland to hear what we’ve heard a thousand times before.”
The new documentary “American Chaos” is one such journey, stretched out to an unnecessary 90 minutes. Directed by James D. Stern, the film amounts to little more than a series of interviews with prospective Trump voters, filmed during the buildup to the 2016 election, with shots of Stern looking increasingly exasperated. Even if his effort had come out earlier, it would still have been an utterly inessential exercise.
Stern is primarily a producer, with a diverse résumé that includes “Looper” and “I’m Not There.” With “American Chaos,” he demonstrates no qualifications as a documentarian beyond the fact that he can afford to hire a camera crew. Among those he talks to: Republican fundraisers in Florida, unemployed miners in West Virginia, and ranchers who live along the Mexican border. In every interview, Stern takes what he is told at face value, expecting the audience to do the same for his running commentary. A careless analyst, Stern presents the election as a horse race, nothing more.
None of his subjects have anything of interest to say.
He interviews a Cuban immigrant — a die-hard Trump supporter — seemingly unaware that many Cuban immigrants are conservative. Sometimes, there’s a reactionary tone to his subjects’ remarks: one man calls for Hillary Clinton’s execution; another implies that a vote for Trump is “revenge” for Obama. Stern merely ogles these people, like an outsider, evoking a twist on Sacha Baron Cohen on “Who Is America?” — minus the satire.
Who’s the audience for this film? Certainly not Trump voters, who will smell its liberal bias a mile away. As for Trump’s critics, they are likely to gnash their teeth as they’re forced to relive a tense, unpleasant election cycle.
Although he includes some perfunctory commentary from some academics, Stern sees himself as the ultimate authority. In that sense, he’s no different from a Michael Moore, or any number of other opinionated filmmakers. The only problem? Stern’s film is no more incisive than the #resistance memes your uncle posts on Facebook. There’s no difference between his off-the-cuff comments and the film’s written narration.
“Chaos” might have been better had the filmmaker revisited his interview subjects now that we are deep into Trump’s presidency. But that would have required additional work. If the film is a testament to anything, it’s Stern’s laziness.
Throughout “Chaos,” Stern presents himself as the voice of reason, one that deserves to be listened to with respect, although he never really examines his own assumptions. Did Trump succeed by tapping into the anxieties and resentments of white voters? Maybe. But if such a theory has occurred to Stern, it isn’t apparent. There is nothing thought-provoking or even entertaining in “American Chaos,” an irrelevant time capsule that will be forgotten as soon as Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9” hits theaters.
R. At Landmark’s West End Cinema. Contains some strong language, including sexual references. 90 minutes.