About two-thirds into this 102-minute documentary — which feels like 102 hours — we watch Fox News host Megyn Kelly talking to onetime George W. Bush consigliere Mark McKinnon on the eve of the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. “Either way, we’re gonna win,” Kelly says with a beaming smile. “Because [whether it is] boring or electric, everyone’s gonna watch!”
Yup, they sure did. Kelly’s remark, addressing with zero ambiguity the media’s culpability in the contentious and often outrageous 2016 election, is one of the rare moments of insight offered in the by-the-numbers recap of the last 18 months. Featuring the same team of pundits (Mark Halperin, John Heilemann and McKinnon) as Showtime’s docuseries The Circus, the movie was quickly assembled in order to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, before airing on Showtime this week. And it’s a pity, because the rushed nature of the film basically predetermined its mediocre quality. There is no step backwards here for any type of deep examination — indeed, self-examination — of the media’s role. Neither is there of the candidates, their staffs, or their constituencies. And thanks to that, Trumped is something that the election, admittedly, never was: a staggering bore.
Halperin and Heilemann, both talented, longtime political reporters, cemented their reputation with the publication of Game Change, a third of which (the least interesting third, actually) was made into an HBO movie starring Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin. But Game Change was published 14 months after the 2008 election, allowing for a long reflection period and time for Halperin and Heilemann to interview more than 300 insiders about the race. Trumped is merely a collection of the candidate’s life on the campaign trail, from using mafia verbiage to describe his attitude about the Clintons to “I like people that weren’t captured” to the general ugliness in the crowd at his campaign rallies. (The latter topic was illuminated much more hauntingly in Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated 13TH.)
For Trump antagonists, the documentary is masochism on ice. Conversely, it offers no red meat for the new president’s biggest fans, shooting all of his greatest hits through what they would perceive as a gnarly “media bias” lens. The vanilla approach, especially given Trump’s eventful first 10 days in office, renders the movie as nothing more than a cash grab. Say what you will about the hyper-partisan documentaries by Dinesh D’Souza or Michael Moore — at least they have a purpose for existing. And though both D’Souza and Moore are propagandists, nothing in their films comes off as forced or phony as the scenes here of Halperin and Heilemann as they walk unnaturally and talk artificially about what’s going on around them. Often, it’s squirm-inducing.
“If she wins Florida, that’s that,” Halperin says, early on election night.
“Mr. Trump, sayonara,” Heilemann responds, in one of his rare sentences uttered without the F-word.
Cool dudes, huh? Awkward, dweeby moments like that draw away from the fact that Halperin and Heilemann are top-notch journalists, esteemed in the art of gaining a source’s trust and confidence. Even Trump’s, in fact. And buried within this movie is a fascinating subject in Trump advisor Roger Stone, the notorious political operative and Clinton conspiracy-theorist who was introduced to Trump in 1979 by Roy Cohn. In Trumped, the camera goes inside Stone’s memorabilia-filled home (hundreds of ‘Nixon for President’ posters, plus a Donald Trump Apprentice doll, still in the box) and then later, into Manhattan’s Russian Tea Room, where during dinner he sips his martini and snarls, “Nothing’s over till we say it is.” Imagine that guy as the star of a real documentary, instead of as a small piece of these microwaved leftovers. There’s a movie that would stun, rather than numb. C