Movie review: 'American Chaos'

Brad Keefe
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The documentary “American Chaos” is one of the most frustrating movies I've seen this year on several levels.

Through the eyes of director James D. Stern, it takes a look at the final six months leading up to the 2016 presidential election.

Spoiler alert: Donald Trump still wins.

Raised in a deeply liberal Chicago family, Stern finds himself struggling to understand the fervency of Trump supporters. So he does what any good liberal documentary filmmaker would do and sets out to find this different America.

With dramatic flair, he sets off “Heart of Darkness”-style to journey into the belly of Trump Country and find out firsthand what makes these people tick. And he vows to listen, not argue.

This can be a challenge, as I sometimes had a hard time not arguing with the screen.

While the whole film has a self-aggrandizing air that undercuts its power, Stern does present Trump supporters in their own words in ways that everyone in this country should see.

He travels to Florida and meets a Cuban-American who emigrated to the country decades ago when he was just a boy. He's now strongly stumping for Trump, largely because of his anti-immigration views. No irony is lost.

There are scenes of Stern staring in disbelief during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland (glad we dodged that stain, Columbus). We see ebbs and flows of his confidence that America couldn't possibly elect a con artist like Donald Trump.

Spoiler alert: America did.

A large and enlightening segment of “American Chaos” is spent in West Virginia. There's empathy for those in a region that saw themselves sitting on “200 years of coal,” and have been devastated by changes to that industry.

It's easy to see why Trump's over-simplified promises to these people resonated.

Stern looks around a small town and declares it “a different world” with a sudden understanding of why people in these areas have a wildly different view of an issue like the Second Amendment.

But this empathy also has blind spots, especially when it comes to Stern's non-argumentative approach.

He establishes that these people rightly feel forgotten by their country and that Trump simply says what they want to hear.

But also as these supporters parrot attacks on Hillary Clinton (that she'll take away guns on her first day in office, that she's corrupt and guilty of treason), there's no questioning where they get this information.

Stern also doesn't seem to question his own beliefs much, and “American Chaos” is far too ego-driven to be what it could.

But there's still vital importance in understanding these voters, and that makes this documentary an important watch.

Opens Friday

3 stars out of 5

“American Chaos”