AMERICAN CHAOS – Review – We Are Movie Geeks



By  | 

Left to right: James D. Stern, John Ladd, JoBeth Ladd, Peggy Davis, Fred Davis, in the documentary AMERICAN CHAOS. Photo by Kevin Ford, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics (c)

As someone who grew up in Chicago, filmmaker James D. Stern was puzzled by the rise of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. But then he did something few people in “blue states” might do: he set out to listen to ordinary Trump supporters in “red states” – not to argue with them, just to listen – to find out why they supported him. The resulting documentary, AMERICAN CHAOS, offers fascinating and unexpected insights on why ordinary people voted for Trump.

The documentary AMERICAN CHAOS starts with footage of Presidential political campaigns, beginning with Teddy Roosevelt in the early 20th century. Black and white images give way to color as we recap every president’s campaign since, up to Donald Trump. However, it is the 2016 Trump campaign that is the documentary’s real focus. Scratch that – it is the Trump voters that are the focus. The campaign and the candidate are merely background.

This is a film that people on either side of the political divide could learn from. Six months before the 2016 election, Stern, a Chicago-raised Democrat, hit the road to find out why voters in “red states” were supporting Donald Trump. Among other things, the documentary details attitudes and assumptions on both sides that get in the way of communication across the divide. By taking a grass-roots and non-confrontational approach, Stern uncovers answers that will surprise many and aspects of why people voted for Trump in the 2016 election that have not been well-covered in partisan media.

The opening footage reminds us that there are some things that are the same in every presidential campaign: the crowds eager to see and hear the candidate, the speeches before the crowds, the handshakes and travel. But somethings are different, sometimes radically different.

Candidate Donald Trump certainly was different. As one speaker in the documentary notes, Trump was unique as a presidential candidate: a 70-year-old man with no government experience, no military experience, and who had never done anything in the way of public service. “They compare him to Ronald Reagan but Reagan had been governor of California for eight years,” he notes. That lack of experience shocked Democrats and some Republicans, but was a major appeal to voter of the Tea Party stripe.

Stern gives a quick run-down of how Trump looked to Democrats and their confusion about his appeal. Frustrated by the lack of insight given by listening to either right or left-leaning media, he decided to go straight to the source, Trump supporters, for answers. So he hit the road.

Stern’s road trip took him to Florida, home to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate and Cuban-American communities, Cleveland during the Republican convention, West Virginia coal country and Arizona near the border. It is not just “red states” Stern visits, but particularly rural areas, where he seeks out grassroots activists and local elected officials rather than the big names, as well as some ordinary voters.

In West Virginia, he visits with modern-day descendants of the Hatfields and McCoys, and finds the feuding families are now friends and business partners. As always, Stern listens and asks questions, rather than giving his views, and you feel a real human connection between him and the people he interviews, something you may not expect.

On camera, Stern interviews people who who hold a variety of views but all support Trump. Some of those views are familiar from Fox News and social media, and Stern spends some time on the issue of people’s sources of information, particularly the role of social media. What had once been whisper campaigns and word-of-mouth rumors with limited reach could now spread much further through social media.

Stern touches on a number of issues and topics, offering information on the differing views between right and left, but does not dwell on ones most familiar, like abortion. The documentary’s most intriguing insights are the ones that get away from those well-worn discussions.

Time and again, the Trump supporters talk about three themes: jobs, immigration and Hillary Clinton.

Stern’s questions about why people supported Trump very often led to a litany of complaints about Hillary Clinton. Justified or not, the concerns and the dislike were real and palpable. Another theme was economic decline and lack of jobs. In West Virginia, the decline of the coal industry left small town empty, but similar impacts could be seen in any rural or manufacturing area. There was a sense of grasping at straws, and perhaps a businessman, even one with Trump’s rocky record, might have some answers. The immigration issue was covered in several places. In Florida, Cuban-Americans complain about how they followed the rules and came legally and newer arrivals aren’t. In Arizona, a couple of ranchers with property along the border paint a different picture of border issues than those who don’t live there may have.

Occasionally, Stern lets people with opposing views, left or right, speak but allows each group to speak freely on their own terms instead of setting up confrontations or debates. It is a far more informative and useful approach, even if you don’t agree with what they say. Not everything people say, left or right, are nice. A few rural people express views that sound xenophobic or racist, but other people in big cities express views that show a lack of comprehension and even dismissive of other opinions. But the range of views helps Stern present a fuller picture of the state of the country.

The documentary does not really focus on the campaign, except as background and a timeline for the feelings of voters. It spends little time on the other Republican candidates and does not even mention Bernie Sanders, and keeps the focus on the Trump campaign and occasionally Clinton. Even there, it does little more than mark milestones, like the Access Hollywood tapes, securing the nomination, the debates, and other points. The documentary follows events though the election and up to inauguration.

No matter your political leanings, AMERICAN CHAOS offers fascinating insights on Trump’s appeal and what that might mean for our divided country.