Political documentaries reap windfall from Trump era

Posted at 2:34 PM, Aug 31, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-31 16:34:22-04

Publishing hasn’t been the only medium to reap benefits from the Trump presidency. Documentaries — especially those with political overtones — have also experienced a golden-age-type windfall, evident in strong summer boxoffice for movies like “RBG,” with an additional spate of releases due this fall.

Just the next few weeks will see the opening of “Active Measures,” director Jack Bryan’s meticulous examination of the relationships and history linking President Trump to the Russian government; and “America Chaos,” James D. Stern’s first-person account — as a Hillary Clinton supporter — of the factors leading to Donald Trump’s surprising election as the 45th president.

Those projects will be augmented by several more, including high-profile premieres in September at the Toronto International Film Festival: Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9,” a date tied to the 2016 election; Errol Morris’ “American Dharma,” about Trump administration alumnus Steve Bannon; and Alexis Bloom’s “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes,” a profile of the late patriarch of Fox News Channel, which has become in the eyes of many political and media observers a near-indistinguishable extension of the Trump communications operation.

Toronto received an overall increase in submissions this year, covering a gamut of topics, said Thom Powers, who programs TIFF’s documentary lineup.

“As we’re watching them, usually some thematic cluster will appear,” Powers said. “This year, one of those thematic clusters is clearly around politics.”

In “American Chaos,” Stern travels the country talking to Trump supporters, after proclaiming during the campaign that “America’s not gullible enough to elect a man” with his credentials.

During one of the more telling exchanges, Stern asks an older white man to identify the year to which the Trump slogan “Make America Great Again” hearkens back. He puts the time at 1957, seemingly oblivious to the fact that those years might not be viewed in the same way by women and minorities.

The film, notably, continues through election night, as a clearly crestfallen Stern watches the results, finally proclaiming, “Maybe we’ll survive this too.”

If “American Chaos” is a ground-level view of the campaign, “Active Measures” seeks to provide a bird’s-eye perspective of how Russians cultivated Trump through the years, while documenting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy of using espionage to undermine democracies from within.

The film interviews a who’s who of political and media figures, including Hillary Clinton, the late John McCain and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who describes Trump as being “the perfect mark for the Russians.”

For those who have followed coverage of the Trump-Russia story, much of this will be a rehash. But the film is skillfully assembled into what feels like a thriller, making the case articulated by investigative journalist Craig Unger (among those featured), author of “House of Trump, House of Putin,” that Trump Tower became a “money-laundering paradise.”

This has already been a huge summer for documentaries, with “RBG” — the CNN Films presentation about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — the Mr. Rogers biography “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “Three Identical Strangers” all amassing the kind of box-office returns such films rarely generate.

The popularity of those films is “reflective of a general rising trend in documentaries,” Powers said, adding in regard to movie distributors, “I know they are coming to the festival hungry to find new films that can build on the successes of the summer.”

In “American Chaos,” Stern says he embarked on the project in part so he could “tell my kids why this is happening.”

If the factors that went into Trump’s election are complicated, the impetus behind the current tide of documentaries stemming from it is pretty simple: Not only do the filmmakers have something to say, but from a bottom-line perspective, there’s an audience for them.

“Active Measures” and “American Chaos” premiere Aug. 31 and Sept. 14, respectively, in select theaters. “Fahrenheit 11/9,” “American Dharma” and “Divide and Conquer” will play in September at the Toronto International Film Festival.