Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: James D. Stern
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 8/23/18
Opens: September 20, 2018
With an introductory remark that “you can’t know another person unless you get into his skin,” James D. Stern takes off on a road trip to what some snobs call flyover country—West Virginia and Arizona—but with stops as well in Miami and Cleveland, the latter being the site of the Republic National Convention in 2016 that certified Donald Trump as nominee for President. He may not have literally gotten into the skin of Trump supporters, but by playing himself as neutral, he is able to elicit considerable talk from a variety of people in much the way that Claude Lanzmann in “Shoah” in 1985 allowed his subjects to say what they would otherwise keep to themselves if they thought the interviewer were biased against them.
Stern, who lives and breathes politics (his “So Goes the Nation” explored the folks in the Buckeye state before the 2004 presidential election), has an awesome array of 59 production credits, and is in his métier as a friendly but seemingly impartial interviewer. His subjects are almost all Trump supporters though he occasionally tosses in some comments by Democrats, perhaps to give viewers the feeling that America is not all that chaotic, that there are people who, like one scientist, says that yes, we are undergoing climate change which could prove more dangerous to the earth if steps are not taken quickly.
Except for some moments in the epilogue, Stern deals only with the months before the November 2016 election when people had to get their impression of Trump from what he says rather than what he does, which makes absolutely essential a sequel to discover whether their views have changed, though we already know from the pundits that few Trump supporters have left the fold.
So, what’s wrong with Kansas? In fact, what’s the secret of Trump’s success across most of the red midlands of our great nation? The responses are from people who vote for the Republican party—or, if you prefer the language of ex-House speaker John Boehner, the Trump party. Their views are not unexpected by anyone who has followed politics, whether via Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, the NY Times, the Washington Post and the progressive newspaper, The Arizona Republic.
One subject has an analogy: you don’t want strangers in your home, people you know nothing about, do you? When we tolerate illegal immigration, we are faced by this dilemma, and in fact, one woman who lives 25 miles from the Mexican border notes (without even winking at the interviewer) that Mexicans sneak across, rape the women, and hang up their underwear as though claiming a victory of sorts. Thus, she concludes, we must rigorously maintain the power of the Second Amendment—never mind that the Founding Fathers put that into the Constitution soon after colonists were involved in a long war with Britain.
Another respondent argues that previously foreigners have assimilated into the American culture, but not so much now. They had always kept their ways, perhaps preparing arroz con pollo or imam bayeldi at home, but they will enjoy hot dogs on every Fourth of July. Yet another subject appreciates that the President says what’s on his mind: not like the big bad Democrats who keep their real feelings secretive. As for climate change, nah: Mother Earth will take care of her own. Coal miners in West Virginia take Trump seriously when Potus promised to bring back their jobs; never mind that other sources of energy are cleaner and that even if the mines were re-opened, automation would put most West Virginians out of work.
A few state that Trump’s billions do not alienate him from the working class: “He has billions and he can help us become successful.” As for Hillary Clinton, while at least one subject suggests that she has committed treason “and the penalty for treason is death,” others simply hate her, believing that all she cares about are money and power (unlike Trump, presumably).
Surprisingly the issues of abortion and gay rights are not mentioned at all, giving viewers the impression that they are minor considerations that do not concern them one way or another. However it must be pointed out that Stern does not interview many evangelicals but rather salt-of-the-earth people who worry only about jobs and immigration and resent people who are given welfare though they do not contribute to society.
Throughout, director Stern does not fade back as the invisible interviewer but appears in every scene, sometimes rolling his eyes for our benefit, sometimes seeming on the verge of tears. He never lets on, though, that he is anything but a blank slate, a neutral observer.
Behind the lens, Kevin Ford captures sides of the American topography that are only casually known by urban dwellers, while Rose Corr and Kevin Ford at the editing machines keep the film moving at a brisk pace. A rapid-fire introduction to the movie hones in on previous presidential campaigns, as far back at Teddy Roosevelt’s and with celluloid given to Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, JFK, Barack Obama and Trump. Though people who follow politics may find nothing new in the commentary, James Stern allows us to get at least hints of the over-all personalities of the subjects. Democrats in the audience might be expected to guffaw at some of (what they consider) unsophisticated, xenophobic and outlandish comments such as the bit about Hillary’s being guilty of treason. Audience members on the right will doubtless be motivated to don their red baseball caps and continue to see that America is being made great again. Sequel! Sequel! Sequel!
Rated R. 90 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – A-