Anybody distressed by the election of Donald Trump will know that currently turning on a television or checking social media constitutes an act of self-flagellation. The American despot’s tan-stained mug is appearing everywhere, in our dreams and waking hours alike, as if it were a new pumpkin-coloured Babadook.
Since Trump’s upset win in November, documentarians have been racing to churn out accounts of his success. The first feature filmmakers to cross the finishing line in the era of President Trump are co-directors Ted Bourne, Mary Robertson and Banks Tarver.
Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time (available in Australia on Stan from February 5) arrives with the promise of unprecedented access and never-before-seen footage, gleaned from thousands of hours shot for a weekly TV series that aired in America called The Circus.
In one of Trumped’s most memorable moments, co-presenter John Heilemann questions the then-presidential candidate about why the Clintons attended his wedding to Melania in 2005. The President justifies it as follows: “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” To which Heilemann responds: “That’s a mafia saying.”
The film’s other presenter/interviewer is fellow journalist Mark Halperin. The pair of politics addicts, a duo since 2008, have co-written two best-selling postmortems about Obama’s election campaigns and co-hosted a political analysis television program.
Both are unafraid to get in Trump and other people’s faces, speaking/grilling a range of former and current confidantes. There are occasions when their curly questions and at times flabbergasted responses suggest near-disdainful regard for the political process, but coupled with a fondness for the exciting rough-and-tumble of horse race journalism.
“Claims that Trumped deliver the goods vis-à-vis genuine insider material are, however, fair dinkum.”
There is technically a third co-presenter, of sorts: long-term Republican media adviser Mark McKinnon, who was a top strategist in George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns. He’s quiet and a little weird. McKinnon slinks around and manifests out of nowhere like the cowboy from Mulholland Drive, complete with Stetson hat and calm low-pitched voice that suggests the man is privy to a secret or two.
Heilemann in particular is more boisterous and unhinged, eventually declaring that he will “try to make some sense out of this fucked up, distressing, depressing election.” Does the film itself succeed on those terms?
Not really. Claims that Trumped deliver the goods vis-à-vis genuine insider material are, however, fair dinkum. There is nothing sizzling or revelatory in store (to be fair, Trump can surely – hopefully – no longer shock us). But there’s quite a bit of the now-President talking mano-a-mano to either Heilemann or Halperin, sometimes away from the rest of the media scrum, and a lot of behind the scenes footage.
Perhaps a result of the film’s quick turnaround time, there is an element of extended Wikipedia entry in its structure. The directors cover off on the requisite beats, starting with Trump’s underdog status as contender for Republican nominee and moving forward. Americans who followed the election reasonably closely will likely feel they’ve seen this stuff before, though that’s not the case for all audiences.
Trumped adds a reasonable amount of meat to the bone, particularly in how the election played out in the eyes of local pundits. This is not something overseas audiences have necessarily had much exposure to.
Following one of the presidential debates a talking head remarks: “everybody agrees, Donald Trump was terrible.” Then the Trump campaign “goes into freefall” – says another expert – after the October surprise video goes viral (the one with Trump talking about grabbing women’s nether regions). Things continue to get supposedly worse for Team Trump. And yet … well, we know how this story ends.
The filmmakers favour a fly-on-the-wall style to constructing a detailed or interesting hypothesis. They appear to view the latter as something outside their remit, perhaps hoping to come up with a presidential version of last year’s jaw-dropping account of Anthony Weiner attempted comeback, Weiner. For a great example of a documentary that considers context as the ultimate – and perhaps only – means to rationalise stranger-than-fiction scenarios, check out the brilliant OJ Simpson: Made in America.
Trumped draws – or at least rehashes – some compelling passing observations, many of which could constitute entire feature-length films. There is reasonable consideration given to why the foot-in-mouth former reality TV star was an appealing choice to voters, though you can tell these observations were drawn retrospectively.
One interesting thought bubble touches on how Donald Trump’s election was not just about choosing the President, but what it means to be a conservative American in the 21st century. Could conservatism in politics become synonymous with things like xenophobia, crude slogans and inhumane border patrol? Australians would be excused for thinking: welcome to our world.