American Chaos: A Dish Best Served Every Four Years, by Tyler Smith
“Voting is the best revenge.”
So said President Barack Obama on the campaign trail in 2012. I cannot think of a better summation of modern politics than this statement. It takes the idea of voting – and of politics, in general – and makes it extremely personal. And 2018 politics is nothing if not deeply personal. Where politics used to be up there with religion as a subject that one had a legal and cultural right to keep to themselves, it is now openly discussed ad nauseam. One cannot watch a football game or movie without being inundated with political opinions. We are surrounded by politics, with our specific voting preferences becoming the ultimate indicator of our personal morality. As such, a different political view can actually be seen as a personal insult, which must be answered, most effectively in the ballot box.
So, if politics is personal, and voting is indeed the best revenge, one must ask exactly what we can glean from the election of Donald Trump in November of 2016.
This is the question that director James. D. Stern strives to answer in his documentary American Chaos. A lifelong liberal living in Los Angeles, Stern observes that he rarely has occasion to talk with conservatives. So when Trump received the Republican nomination for President, he couldn’t imagine how such a thing was possible. Stern then grabbed his camera and flew around the country, talking with Trump supporters in Florida, West Virginia, and Arizona. He resolved to simply ask questions, allowing his subjects to speak for themselves. Perhaps then he could learn more about the other side and what drove it.
Of course, at the time, Stern thought he was documenting the rage and frustration that led millions of people to nominate a candidate that couldn’t possibly become president. This element adds to the drama of the film, as we see Stern react to the national news at the same time that he is attempting to find out more about the opposition. It’s easy to be magnanimous when he thinks he’s documenting the losers, but the empathy begins to run dry once he sees the numbers roll in on election night.
And while there are moments when Stern, who promised to only ask questions, can’t help but cut to experts from UCLA to comment on his interview subjects, the film is surprisingly restrained and fair-minded.
Stern interviews out-of-work coal miners in West Virginia, who previously supported Barack Obama but just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for somebody who promised to “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” He speaks with Cuban immigrants in Florida who are appalled at the idea of coddling illegal immigrants when their own parents worked so hard and waited so long to escape from Castro’s authoritarian nightmare. He talks to ranchers in Arizona who have housed and fed illegal Mexican immigrants, but who would still prefer not to find dead bodies on their property due to a loosening up of immigration policy.
Some of the subjects are uninformed and inarticulate, while others are pragmatic and sympathetic. And, as Stern listens to them, he also keeps tabs on the campaign itself, howling with fury at Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorable” comment. To be attempting to hear out his own political opponents, only for his candidate to completely dismiss them, serves to underline for Stern why so many felt they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton.
By the time the election rolls around, Stern is much more understanding of people that he was previously so comfortable with judging outright. He makes no bones about still being a liberal, and is fairly unabashed in aiming his film directly at a left-leaning audience. It’s clear that making the film was both a harrowing and humbling experience for him, and that comes through consistently.
American Chaos may not be the most incisive political documentary, but perhaps that is to its credit. With so many taking hardline political stances, James Stern’s attempt at injecting some compassion into the proceedings is a welcome relief, even if it does feel a bit soft at times. It remains to be seen if the film is effective in getting its message across, or if it’s simply too late, and every election from now on will simply be an exercise in vengeance.