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Trumped, a new documentary, is a baffling exercise in faux neutrality

Showtime’s follow-up to The Circus inadvertently reveals what’s wrong with modern political coverage.

Trumped, the documentary about Trump’s rise to power, airs on Showtime at 9pm on February 3.
Trumped, the documentary about Trump’s rise to power, airs on Showtime at 9pm on February 3.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The new Showtime documentary Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time is baffling. Who thought it was a good idea? Why? And who, exactly, is it for?

The film (which airs February 3 at 9 pm) was cut together from hundreds of hours of footage shot for the network’s 26-part TV series The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth. The Circus aired throughout much of 2016 and condensed each week on the campaign trail into a half-hour episode of television. Trumped is a feature-length movie that covers the full trajectory of the campaign, from Donald J. Trump’s unlikely triumph over a crowded field of GOP hopefuls to become the Republican presidential nominee, all the way through to the night he lost the popular vote, but won enough Electoral College votes to propel him to the highest office in the land.

It’s a competent documentary, though calling it entertaining is a stretch — that will depend on who’s watching. But its very existence brings to life some of the problems that most plague American political culture — without, unfortunately, really reflecting on what it’s doing. Trumped is a missed opportunity.

Trumped inherits the problems of its TV documentary predecessor

The footage for Trumped was shot during the production of The Circus, which James Poniewozik summed up in the New York Times as “cheerfully cynical yet with a sincere appetite for the game.”

Veteran journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann produced the Showtime TV series, along with former George W. Bush adviser Mark McKinnon, providing commentary about what was happening — as it was happening — and interviewing key players along the way, including candidates, advisers, pundits, and voters.

At its best, The Circus provided a way for viewers to patch together a simpler narrative from the week’s political chaos: It took a never-ending news cycle and turned it into a more digestible story. Watching The Circus, you felt like there was some order to the madness.

Donald Trump Addresses South Florida Tea Party Rally
Trump speaking to a crowd in 2011, shortly before he was expected to announce his intentions to run for president in 2012.
Photo by John W. Adkisson/Getty Images

But The Circus always made me uneasy. To put it bluntly, the show had no point of view. It could have functioned as a bit of media criticism, showing how 24/7 TV coverage of political races changes them from debates over policy and governance into high-stakes sporting events. Or it could have been frankly partisan. Or it could have transformed the spectacle into satire. Or it could have offered insights into considerations that were getting lost in the shuffle, or added context to seemingly bizarre events.

However, The Circus stuck with just chronicling the campaign with a side of light commentary about what was happening, as if it was the first cut of the “making of” special feature, to be distributed with a DVD titled LOL 2016 Presidential Election: That Sure Was Something, Wasn’t It.

When you recount the making of a spectacle without critiquing the spectacle itself — when you use the form of TV to chronicle what is essentially a lengthy, unscripted, multi-platform, full-immersion story experience — you become part of the spectacle’s production, not separate from it. And maybe that was the point.

A critique or even analysis of the “greatest political show on earth” would have required a level of self-awareness that The Circus never possessed. The show felt more enamored of its subject than anything else. It was an inadvertent affirmation of the breathlessness for which “the media” was rightly criticized throughout the campaign: a framing of politics as a reality show or sporting event, rather than a sober choice citizens must face.

Yes, I know that only bad critics rag on something because they wanted it to be something entirely different. But even on its own merits, The Circus was icky: It was totally entertaining and often informative on a basic level, but when the credits rolled, you weren’t quite sure why you’d just watched it.

And that’s because, while the show avoided having a political point of view, its avoidance was itself a statement. That kind of studiously neutral stance — we’re just here to watch it all go down! — would only truly be neutral if it wasn’t being delivered in the same package as its subject.

What’s even worse is that it wasn’t a recap of a week in sports or entertainment. Politics shouldn’t be a game, and voters shouldn’t be fans rooting from the sidelines for whomever they like watching the most or feel the most regional connection with. Politics in America shouldn’t be a spectator sport — it’s an all-hands-on-deck, full participation project that will die if it’s merely observed.

Of course, The Circus is not responsible for the fact that only half the voters in America cast ballots on November 8. But throughout the election, media coverage across the political spectrum — forced to cater to what viewers will pay for — often defaulted to hyperventilation and big headlines and shouting talking heads rather than anything approaching thoughtful analysis.

The result was a spectator sport culture in political news, with everyone waiting to see what the next big, insane development would be. Trump figured out how to gin this to his advantage, effectively keeping debate about content out of the headlines by forcing discussion to always be about form, about the way he talks and acts rather than what he’s saying.

Republican Presidential Hopefuls Meet With Potential Iowa Voters
Trump speaking to guests at the Republican Party of Iowa’s Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines in May 2015.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Watching Trump was like watching an Olympic runner whose gait is bizarre. But watching sports doesn’t necessarily encourage you to go play them — it encourages an attitude of passive participation, of armchair quarterbacking. And The Circus fed into that passive impulse without any serious intention of critiquing it.

The Circus is only a symptom of a wider problem in American democracy. But perhaps it’s no wonder that half the country’s impulse on November 8 was to stay home and watch the finale, rather than go make the finale happen.

At heart, Trumped is a sports story.

So that brings us to Trumped, which, as its subtitle says, is meant to be the inside story of “the greatest political upset of all time.”

That very Trumpian claim can be taken two ways: either as a straightforward statement of fact, or as a wry poke at the POTUS with tongue firmly planted in cheek, in imitation of his penchant for tremendous overstatement.

Confusingly, the film seems to want us to believe the former. The movie picks up with Trump’s announcement of his candidacy and ends with the election itself, walking through the cycle with a timeline of events. Through footage of backstage chats with Trump, clips from news shows and debates and rally coverage, and context chats with Heilemann, Halperin, and McKinnon (along with a variety of campaign insiders, from Kellyanne Conway to Bernie Sanders), a narrative emerges in which the central players are the underestimated Trump on the one side, and those who underestimated him on the other.

So Trumped is a sports story: Trump versus everyone — the media, the other candidates, Hillary Clinton campaign Chair John Podesta, and the Washington establishment. Nobody believed he could do it, but he did. Punches that would knock another candidate to the mat seem to glance off him like they’re hitting a force field.

But the campaign was a sports story the first time around, too, one that just finished up. Trumped functions like a shot-for-shot remake of the original, made much too close to the original to provide any additional insight or clarity. Who would want to see that but the most die-hard fans?

Trumped advances a familiar narrative that’s growing a bit tired

The “inside look” that Trumped promises is not much of an inside look at the title candidate at all. In fairness, that’s not really the filmmakers’ fault; Trump’s brand is built on letting it all hang out, tax returns and physician’s reports notwithstanding. Thus, finding something to say that hasn’t already been tweeted or stated on camera is almost impossible. When your subject has apparently little capacity for shame, unearthing some juicy and revealing tidbit is practically impossible.

But that’s what’s so baffling: Who actually wants to see more backstage interviews right now with Trump? I don’t mean that sneeringly — I actually don’t know. I’d have assumed your average news junkie is the target market for a hot-off-the-presses documentary about a president who will be on his 15th day in office when the movie debuts. And yet the news junkie is already confronted with wall-to-wall Trump coverage all day and night.

Donald Trump Gives Address On Immigration In Phoenix
Donald Trump spoke with supporters in Phoenix on July 11, 2015, about illegal immigration and other topics.
Photo by Charlie Leight/Getty Images

Nobody on the political left (and a sizable swath of the political right) needs more Trump in their day, unless there’s some new insight to be gleaned. But Trumped doesn’t have any new insights — just a reiteration of the most popular narrative, which is that people didn’t see a Trump win coming because they’re just that out of touch with “ordinary Americans.”

So the only true explanation is that the people who might enjoy watching Trumped are Trump supporters and, presumably, the man himself. He watches a lot of TV, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he sees this film, too, and if he does I think he’ll be pleased. The Trump of Trumped is all the things he showed himself to be on the campaign trail: bombastic, uninterested in details, bent on winning, sometimes needlessly cruel, and sometimes funny and warm. We’re seeing Trump in the best days of his life, the ones he remembers so fondly that he hasn’t stopped talking and tweeting about them since. He got everything he wanted, and his supporters were able to come along for the ride and feel the glow.

What makes Trumped most interesting as a film is how it differs from a traditional documentary. Typically, the talking head conversations occur after the central event; commentators are looking back at something, with all the attendant wisdom and experience that hindsight brings. But Trumped’s commentators are weighing in in real time, which means we get to see them be wrong (or in some cases, right) a lot. This, too, would please the film’s subject.

Trumped was filmed in real time, and thus it accidentally reveals its worldview

In some respects, the real-time unfolding of Trumped’s story does align with last year’s big political documentary hit, the vastly entertaining and unfortunately continually relevant Weiner. That film happened to be following Weiner when his second sexting scandal hit, and its amazing access to its subject means we do learn genuinely new information about Weiner himself and gain insights into his motivations. But where Weiner was like watching a moving train collide with a brick wall — and then back up before driving into the wall once more — Trumped is just sheer ascent. The train keeps gaining speed until it crashes right through the wall and leaves it in a heap.

We don’t learn anything new. We don’t understand Trump any better. We just watch it all happen again.

Even if you reposition the protagonist of Trumped to be not Trump, but the media itself, the film still remains maddeningly opaque. So, pundits were wrong about Trump’s chances of winning? That’s obvious. Anyone can tell you that. Kellyanne Conway is determined to make sure we never forget it.

But why did they get Trump wrong? There are plenty of reasons. Some simply underestimated him. Some thought he was unelectable. Some were in their much-maligned bubble. And plenty just figured that, given enough time, most voters would see through Trump’s bluster and bragging and decide he wasn’t fit to run the country.

Trumped captures almost none of this. There are plenty of people on camera saying there’s no way Trump can win, and then being disturbed and stunned when he does. But the narrative about what actually happened, as presented in Trumped, is basically what you’ll read in any run of the mill think piece.

Nor does Trumped appear to have an opinion about whether he should have won. He just did. It’s remarkable. Might, in a sense, makes right.

'TRUMPED: Inside The Gratest Political Upset Of All Time' Premiere - 2017 Sundance Film Festival
Cast and crew members at the premiere of Trumped on January 27, 2017, during the Sundance Film Festival.
Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival

At one point in the film, Heilemann grins at the camera and says of the documentary he’s appearing in, “It’s all very meta.” That’s correct, of course. But what’s even more meta is realizing that Heilemann is saying it on camera, knowing he’s being recorded, and knowing that if the scene makes it into the final cut of The Circus, people will watch it and know he knew he was saying it for the camera.

So even the filmmakers are performers, following the consummate performer, who eventually becomes the performer in chief. Forget “meta” — a better term to describe Trumped and the whole Circus endeavor might be something like the Hawthorne effect, in which subjects of a study change their behavior when they know they’re being studied. Trump’s bluster and the pundits’ overconfidence, in the end, may just be of a piece with one another: Faced with a camera, what else are they going to say?

Today, the more important question is, what happens when the performance has consequences? We’re about to spend the next several years finding out.

Trumped airs Friday, February 3 at 9 pm on Showtime.

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