For those who follow the news – the real stuff, not the fictions excreted by Fox – it’s now common knowledge that Donald Trump is an incompetent, pathological liar. We recognize that he’s Vladimir Putin’s sock puppet. And we’re aware that his supporters and fellow Republicans, if they don’t actually spew racist hate, are still comfy enough with anti-black, anti-immigrant rhetoric that they are functionally racists.
So, as a film critic and voracious reader, I’m left questioning if new movies and books will offer us anything novel about Trump and his partisans. A trio of new works – documentaries by Michael Moore and Jack Bryan, and Bob Woodward’s latest book – shows that there are new facts to learn, even if these creators mostly hang additional meat on the skeleton of what is already known about Trump and his minions.
Documentarian and activist Michael Moore, with Fahrenheit 11/9, spends at least as much time analyzing the fertile soil from which Trump sprouted, as he does on the president himself. He also suggests ways forward, hope tempered with fear.
Paralleling 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore opens with optimism dashed, another presidential election stolen from its winner. Instead of the corrupt Floridian voting system that gave Dubya the White House, this time it’s the slave-era institution known as the Electoral College that resulted in Trump being declared the winner on 11/9/16, the date of this film’s title. Moore ends his prologue by asking, “How the f*** did this happen?”
In answering his own query, the writer/director is unsparing in spearing the mainstream media. Driven by the profit motive rather than moral duty, NBC turned a blind eye to Trump’s legacy of racism and sexual assault in giving him a reality TV show. Then, as he ran for president, every network gave him hour upon hour of insufficiently critical free publicity.
Moore’s narrative then takes an unexpected twist, using the Michigan governorship of Rick Snyder to demonstrate that inexperienced, elitist businessmen make for lousy political leaders. Like Trump, Snyder practices rampant cronyism and privileges his peers over the poor, seen most disastrously and criminally in Flint.
Fahrenheit 11/9 periodically returns to Flint from here on. To show how the Democratic Party has lost the trust of ordinary Americans, such that non-voters are now “our largest political party,” Moore reminds us of Obama’s betrayal of Flint. The footage of our former president is positively disgusting, watching him allege that their water was safe again, pretending to sip it in front of long-suffering Flint residents.
Signs of hope, however, are offered in two main forms. First, Moore talks with Democratic candidates who are bucking the failed old guard and fighting to take their party back. Second, he mixes it up with grassroots citizens’ efforts – the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the teachers of West Virginia – who are fighting for what is rightfully theirs, public safety and a living wage.
Moore’s documentary is occasionally tough to watch. It’s painful to relive 11/8 and 11/9, but still more, his necessary footage of recent hate crimes and mass shootings is traumatizing. But, as he’s done in previous films like Bowling for Columbine and Where to Invade Next, Moore sweetens his medicine with humor. This time, however, a couple of his stunts feel flat, in contrast to his comical efforts to interview the GM CEO in his first documentary, Roger & Me.
The hope and humor of this film are leavened with realistic fear of rising fascism. Academics heighten our concern for Trump’s “trial balloons,” where he suggests declaring him president-for-life or urges the killing of journalists.
Moore exhorts us to look out for a Reichstag Fire event in the near future, which some may perceive as alarmist. Considering, though, that he was ahead of the curve in declaring Dubya’s Iraqi adventurism as a “fictitious war,” and was prescient in taking Trump seriously as a political candidate, we do well to heed Moore’s warning.
Jack Bryan could learn a thing or three from Michael Moore, in how to structure a coherent, attention-holding narrative. If I graded his film Active Measures, as our president so loves to do for himself, I would give Bryan an A for research and sourcing, but a D for presentation.
For his documentary about the Trump-Putin connection, Bryan found all the right news clips and headlines. Heck, besides former employees of the FBI and CIA, he managed the admirable feat of getting Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and the former presidents of Georgia and Estonia on camera.
Unfortunately, Bryan tries to cram way too much data into his 110 minute run time. Far better if he’d slowed down and made this into a four-part, eight-hour miniseries.
Part One could’ve covered the biography of Vladimir Putin and his expansionist aspirations for a nouveau Soviet Union. Part Two could analyze Putin’s connections with the major oligarchs/kleptocrats of Russia, while exposing how the Russian Mafia is currently an arm of that country’s government.
Part Three? Let’s look at how Putin, recognizing his inadequate military strength, has instead turned to propaganda, cyberattacks, and agents of influence. Using these three tools, he’s destabilized the Ukraine – even managing to lock up their former female president and install a pro-Putin candidate with the help of a certain Paul Manafort. Meanwhile, to weaken NATO and the European Union, Putin has sown discord abroad, as he simultaneously props up far-right politicians.
Alas, Bryan spits all of this info out in a rapid-fire, non-linear fashion. At times, a voiceover is telling us one thing, while he splashes a related headline across the screen, then highlights particular phrases in red. Mr. Bryan, please slow down!
As one of Active Measures’ talking heads says, “There’s way too much smoke for there to be absolutely no fire.” I agree heartily, but until Bryan gets that miniseries, I’d read Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom instead. It contains most of the same information, but presents it in a far more digestible format.
Fahrenheit 11/9 and Active Measures may spur the already convinced to further action, but I suspect the work with the most enduring significance will be Bob Woodward’s latest book, Fear: Trump in the White House. Best known as half of the journalistic duo that exposed Tricky Dick’s Watergate involvement, Woodward has now covered nine presidencies across his 47 years at The Washington Post.
For his new book, Woodward conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with participants and witnesses to key events at the Trump White House, using the established journalistic practice of “deep background,” where sources speak on the condition of anonymity. Akin to the long-time speculation over Deep Throat’s identity, I suspect Washington insiders will be buzzing for years over which officials spoke with Woodward. (My own guesses include the following “formers”: Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, Chief of Staff Reince Preibus, Staff Secretary Rob Porter, and Chief Economic Advisor Gary Cohn.)
Woodward’s book carries the whiff of being dashed off for publication in a hurry, close editing be damned. In places, it’s repetitive; at other times, it lacks the fluid sentence structure I’d expect from a seasoned journalist.
Nonetheless, Fear is essential reading for those wanting to understand the dysfunction of the Trump White House. As a psychiatrist in the chorus warning about the president’s psychological instability and unfitness for duty, it offered me welcome if alarming confirmation.
Repeatedly on display is Trump’s paranoia, rendering him unable to function for days at a time once the Mueller investigation begins. We see his empathy void and sadism, as he cruelly imitates Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. His impulsivity and irritability are evident in his verbal abuse of South Korean President Moon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and nearly all of his White House staff who aren’t family members.
Gary Cohn describes Trump as a “professional liar,” while his former personal attorney John Dowd is disconcerted by his casual, unceasing dissimulation. Fear is also peppered with countless instances of Trump’s forgetfulness, distractibility, poor attention span, and inability to retain new information.
Just as badly, Trump comes across as the most ignorant man ever to occupy the Oval Office, yet utterly convinced of his superlative talents and intuition. He lacks a high school student’s grasp of basic economics, diplomacy, and military planning, memorably quipping, “You don’t need a strategy to kill people.”
Meanwhile, many of those in Trump’s orbit are fatally flawed, if considerably more intelligent. Defense Secretary James Mattis calls Iranians “idiot raghead mullahs.” Ivanka actually refers to herself as the “first daughter.” Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was a mistrustful control freak, who ran the State Department as a one-man show. Senator Lindsey Graham is a hawkish sycophant who lackadaisically dismisses the prospect of one million South Korean dead, should we go to war with their northern neighbor.
Speaking of which, perhaps the most enlightening and terrifying piece of news for me out of Woodward’s book is how an aborted Trump tweet likely brought us within a hairsbreadth of such a conflict. This should stimulate us resisters to keep fighting this inept, corrupt administration.
Also made transparent through Fear is that nearly everyone around Trump is cognizant of his ignorance, incompetence, and mental instability. Hopefully, our country and world will last long enough for these complicit bastards to see some justice, post-Trump.
John Dowd even argues to Mueller’s legal team that his client is “clearly disabled” and thus unfit to testify. If Trump is incapable of speaking on his behalf in a court of law, how is he fit to run our country?
Fahrenheit 11/9: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Active Measures: 3 out of 5 stars