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Tackling the Trump era on film is a challenge. These 3 documentaries point the way forward.

The Reagan Show, A Gray State, and Get Me Roger Stone come at the same challenge, but with different and surprising approaches.

Stills from The Reagan Show and Get Me Roger Stone, both of which played at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2017.
Stills from The Reagan Show and Get Me Roger Stone, both of which played at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2017.
CNN Films / Netflix
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.

One of the most challenging questions facing documentarians over the next few years will be how to thoughtfully approach documenting the Trump era.

A few factors make this tricky. Filmmakers have a web of misinformation and alternative facts to dig through to construct a truthful narrative. And good filmmakers want to avoid simply preaching to the choir — especially challenging given the leftward tilt of the documentary film world. And of course, filmmakers want to make movies that actually work as films, rather than just lectures or presentations on a big screen.

But those are hurdles that documentarians are used to navigating. The biggest challenge for documentaries that deal directly with Donald Trump’s election and administration has more to do with media than politics: Trump has been assiduously broadcasting his own life, opinions, and capers for most of his adult life by calling cable news, planting tabloid stories, hosting reality TV shows, and pretending to be his own publicist. You can call Donald Trump a lot of things, but camera-shy isn’t one of them.

That leaves documentarians in a strange place: with gobs of archival material to work with, but seemingly little to say that people don’t already know. And though Trump seems at times to feel shame, he also is baldly easy to psychologize. His passions and indiscretions are, for the most part, easy to guess at, because he tweets about them.

Republican operative Roger Stone in Get Me Roger Stone
Republican operative Roger Stone in Get Me Roger Stone.

So how to document the Trump era? And is there even a reason to try?

Of course there is. Documentaries help us step away from the incessant news cycle (which the president has proven skillful at manipulating). They draw a story out of the barrage of occurrences and outrage. They trace a path through events that can seem disconnected to the average viewer when we experience them on a daily basis.

But in order to do this well, films trying to make sense of the rise of Trump and Trumpism have to avoid the easy, shallow route of documentaries like Trumped, which billed itself as being “inside the greatest political upset of all time” but actually just went back over a story everyone knows, with no new light to shed.

Luckily, there are more options for filmmakers. Three documentaries that played at the Tribeca Film Festival last week show different, successful approaches to documenting political upheaval that documentarians could take as we move further into the Trump era.

The Reagan Show lets the past speak for itself

The best of these three films is The Reagan Show, which does something that counts as a radical act these days: It looks back at history — actual history — by letting the actors speak for themselves. And it never draws the lines between the 1980s and today; it trusts the audience to do that for themselves.

The Reagan Show is the story of the Reagan administration, told entirely through news reports and footage shot by the administration itself. It takes the president’s former work as an actor and one of his common nicknames — “the Great Communicator” — as its jumping-off point, beginning with footage of Reagan telling newscaster David Brinkley at the end of his time in office that “there have been times in this office when I wonder how you could do the job without having been an actor.”

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in The Reagan Show
Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in The Reagan Show.
CNN Films

Through such footage, The Reagan Show makes the case that the former actor’s onscreen experience was a perfect training ground for his presidency. Reagan’s administration, it explains in one of the film’s few captions, is remarkable for its unprecedented use of film and television to document his presidency — so much so that it generated more footage than the previous five administrations combined.

That footage is a gold mine for directors Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez. There are shots of Reagan recording a friendly New Year’s greeting to the Soviet people, then uttering, “Take that, Mr. Gorbachev” while the camera’s still rolling. There are outtakes of the president speaking more freely than he ever did on camera, cut in with more traditional news footage that interprets the events taking place.

The film’s arc is that of a three-act TV movie, and it not-so-subtly suggests that Reagan — a Hollywood veteran known for playing the affable good guy — consciously structured his years in office on the same principles that Hollywood had been using to keep fans engaged. The main plot points are the Strategic Defense Initiative (a.k.a. “Star Wars”), the Iran-Contra scandal, and Reagan’s talks with Mikhail Gorbachev.

The film is critical of Reagan, to be sure, bringing in voices that question his control of his own administration and his ability to actually make decisions; the implication is that he may have been more glitz than substance, with others doing the heavy lifting.

But there’s admiration and maybe even nostalgia mixed in, even if it feels like a prophetic omen. (The film drops in a few clips with the president talking about “making American great again” to connect the dots). If it is actually true that Reagan was mostly a showman, he was good at keeping the performance’s seams from showing. And if you’re going to pick something to structure your presidency on, maybe a movie — which can have narrative coherence — is a better model than reality TV.

What keeps The Reagan Show from turning into polemics is one brilliant move: Save for a few explanatory captions, there’s not one present-day talking head or commentator in the film. Figures from today’s politics and media show up, of course — but there’s nobody sitting in 2017 reflecting on what it was like to live in American in the 1980s. Instead, all we see is real-time media reports and footage. The film lets history comment on itself. And so rather than feeling condescended to, we feel let in on the secret.

It turns out reflecting on the past is a terrific way to cast light on the present, and give some warning hints about the future. Adding talking heads might have made the film feel far too heavy-handed; but by letting the past speak for itself, the film stays both sober and light on its feet.

The Reagan Show will release in theaters on June 30 and VOD on July 4, and will air on CNN soon after.

A Gray State tells a chilling story through one man’s experience

A little less skillfully put together — but still immensely revealing — A Gray State is the story of David Crowley, an Iraq and Afghanistan vet who was found mysteriously dead, along with his wife and small daughter, in his Minnesota house in 2015.

Crowley, by his friends’ accounts, was an uncommonly smart, talented, and charismatic young man who, though deeply patriotic, became disillusioned with the American government after his tours of duty in the Middle East — especially after he was sent to Afghanistan as a stop-loss even though he’d been told he’d be discharged after returning from Iraq.

Crowley became embroiled in fringe right-wing politics, spending his own money to finance a trailer for a film called Gray State, which would dramatize a future in which the US was turned into a police state and ruled by a controlling globalist shadow government. The trailer was an instant hit online, and fans raised the money for Crowley to write a screenplay and make the film.

Crowley explains his idea for Gray State through narrating the hero’s journey.
Crowley explains his idea for Gray State through narrating the hero’s journey.
A&E Indie Films

The film is at its best when it touches on the complicated ways the internet has enabled fringe politics and conspiracy theorists to band together while also facilitating the kind of aggression, violence, and radicalism that went mainstream in recent months, particularly in the form of the alt-right (a term the film never uses). At one point, footage Crowley shot of himself in his basement studio shows him watching Alex Jones of InfoWars rant on his web broadcast, as Crowley (wearing fatigues and holding weapons) shouts and pumps his fists.

A Gray State mostly uses footage that Crowley shot of himself and his wife, along with interviews with his family and friends, to tell the story and make the case that — contrary to the theories floated by Gray State fans after Crowley’s death on social media, podcasts, and websites — his death was not the result of the shadow government catching wind of the project and trying to assassinate him. But along the way, it shows how the potent blend of internet celebrity culture, fringe politics, paranoia, and the blurred lines between fantasy and reality can become destructive.

Crowley directing on the set of Gray State.
Crowley directing on the set of A Gray State.
A&E Indie Films

It’s also a deep dive into a world of conspiracy theorists and radically angry anti-government Americans on the internet that many people are only beginning to become aware of — and that’s what makes it an enlightening film in 2017. Crowley is portrayed with great empathy but also a lot of honesty. Nearly everyone on camera praises him and loves him; the participants often smile involuntarily while thinking about him. He didn’t fit the typical vision of an angry loner.

And yet something about the dark world he dove into headfirst as a celebrity had a profound effect on him, and he’s not the only one affected, as many people discovered in the aftermath of the 2016 election. Illuminating that social trend through one man’s experience makes it easier to understand — if no less chilling.

The distributor for A Gray State will be announced, and the film will air on A&E.

Get Me Roger Stone is a full-blown horror show narrated by its own villain

Roger Stone shows up everywhere in American politics — as journalist Jeffrey Toobin puts it early on, he’s the “sinister Forrest Gump of American politics,” popping up everywhere from Watergate to the Trump campaign.

If you think this is overblown lefty rhetoric, think again: Stone wears such monikers like a badge of honor. Get Me Roger Stone traces the history of American conservatism from Nixon’s downfall to Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. And while it brings in talking heads to add background — New Yorker writers Toobin and Jane Mayer, who have intimate knowledge of the history, along with Fox News personality Tucker Carlson — its main narrator is Stone himself, who has no qualms about what he’ll say on camera.

Stone portrays himself as a dandy and a dirtbag, a sleazeball who embodies the rage and drive for fame that’s at the heart of the worst corners of American politics. He’s an InfoWars regular and an object of some marvel and fear to everyone, even those on his political side. He has principles, but they’re entirely in service of staying in the public eye; he calls them “Stone’s rules,” and sprinkles them throughout the film. One such rule: “It is better to be infamous than to never be famous at all.” Another: “Hate is a more powerful motivator than love.”

Roger Stone
Roger Stone doesn’t care what you think.

The film functions as a surprisingly workmanlike connect-the-dots history of what happened to the Republican Party over the past five decades, mostly because Stone was there at every turn: as a young activist, as a political operative, as one of Washington’s most powerful lobbyists (and a partner of Paul Manafort), and as one of Washington’s most feared, despised, and sought-after insiders. And he’s proud of it.

Early on, Stone explains, he learned about “the value of disinformation” (“of course, I’ve never used it since then,” he says, practically winking) and put it to great use in driving massive spending for attack ads. The film makes the case that Stone, seeing how Ross Perot’s Reform Party run cost George H.W. Bush his second term in 1992, and wanting to ensure that George W. Bush would be elected, engineered the explosion of the Reform Party in 2000 by encouraging Pat Buchanan to run for its nomination, then encouraging another candidate to seek the nomination and split the party’s vote — Donald J. Trump. (In 1996, Stone was all but driven underground by a group sex scandal that landed him in the tabloids.)

In fact, Stone’s been a Trump fan for a long time. Trump talks freely to the filmmakers about how Stone had been trying to convince him to run since 1987. Stone makes no bones about it either. “I was like a jockey looking for a horse,” he says. “He was like a prime piece of political horseflesh, in my view.”

Stone has Nixon tattooed on his back.
Stone literally has Nixon tattooed on his back.

Once you spend screen time with Stone, it becomes clear how much of Trump’s rhetoric echoes him. Mayer points out that Stone is the ultimate insider, so he’s a genius at packaging someone he can sell as the ultimate outsider. Stone all but admits to inventing the birther rhetoric, which called into question Barack Obama’s status as a citizen. Carlson says that though Stone left the Trump campaign in an official capacity under dubious circumstances, he was more or less the reason for the firing of Corey Lewandowski, with whom he often clashed, and the installation of Paul Manafort, his old lobbying partner, as the campaign’s manager. Manafort eventually quit the campaign, but was replaced with Steve Bannon, whom Stone calls “a bomb thrower in the Stone mold.”

The single most useful insight of Get Me Roger Stone is that men like Stone are driven not so much by ideology as by an overweening thirst for power and celebrity, propelled by absolute antipathy for their enemies. “Those who say I have no soul, those who say I have no principles, they’re losers,” Stone says at one point. “They’re bitter losers.” Tracing his rise and steady influence through the past five decades is helpful precisely because it doesn’t treat the 2016 election as if it came from nowhere. Rather, it’s portrayed as the culmination of a bitterness cultivated by powerful men who stand to gain everything from their success, who fear nothing more than having the spotlight move away from them.

Near the end of the film, Stone is asked what message he gives to those watching the film who are horrified by him and hate his guts. “I revel in your hatred,” he says. “Because if I weren’t effective, you wouldn’t hate me.” Stone proclaims early on that one of his rules is that “the past is fucking prologue.” If he’s right, then Get Me Roger Stone should properly be marketed as horror.

Get Me Roger Stone will be available to stream on Netflix on May 12.

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