American Chaos (R)

Documentary 90 min. September 14, 2018
By Alan Scherstuhl
To his credit, director-producer James D. Stern acknowledges, just 20 minutes in, a fatal flaw in the premise of American Chaos, his documentary wallow in the electoral pig trough of 2016. He lays out his original idea in the film’s opening minutes: He’s shocked at the Republican base’s fervent support for an obvious con man, and he’s convinced that he must set out on a journey to “see what they really see in this guy.” He’ll study that rarest of species, homo MAGAnus, in its natural habitats. And he’ll just listen.

First up on his listening tour: Republican operatives and an AM talk-radio host whose very livelihood depends on her daily praising of Trump over the airwaves. You might wonder what utility there is in passively listening to people who enjoy public platforms, positions of power and a vested interest in one party’s success. Stern wonders that, too. But he doesn’t much change his approach — he’s still traveling and listening. But, to offset his subjects’ arias of grievances and misinformation, he brings in some experts — academics, mostly — to answer the questions that come to him during the rants. “What do you say to people who don’t believe in climate change?” he asks University of Chicago professor David Archer.

The film, I suspect, will have some minor historical value, but I fear that watching Stern well up on Election Night won’t offer much insight to people alive now. I’ll give him this: His chats expose the pointlessness of many of the prank segments on Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America?: It doesn’t take a costumed provocateur to inspire Americans to expose themselves on camera as asses.
Jim Stern Sony Pictures Classics

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