- Sony Pictures Classics
Partisan politics aside, the documentary American Chaos does little to move the conversation forward among voters on opposite ends of the current — and extremely contentious — political spectrum.
The idea behind American Chaos has been explored countless times before by news organizations trying to understand the polarization between Democrats and Republicans. In this case, filmmaker, Chicago-born leftist and self-described political junkie Jim Stern (Every Little Step) attempts to tap into the mindset of Trump supporters across the U.S. prior to the 2016 presidential election.
As the film plays out, Stern listens intently to the concerns of conservatives as he travels from red state to red state talking to out-of-work coal miners and mostly disaffected white Americans. He undercuts that rapport, however, by allowing American Chaos to become a vessel for more than just objective reporting. One could argue that Stern, who is the brother of Todd Stern, former chief U.S. negotiator of the Paris agreement on climate change, let his bias get the best of the narrative.
That’s not to say filmmakers in the past haven’t tipped the scales when making politically motivated documentaries. On the right, a director like Dinesh D’Souza has spouted off inflammatory propaganda and one-sided assertions in projects like Hillary’s America that always rile up Trump’s base. On the left, director Michael Moore has waged fights against automatic weapons, lack of health care and corporate greed over the last 30 years. Stern, unfortunately, doesn’t command the screen or deliver any real insight like Moore has done in the past with some of his best political heavy-hitters — Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine and Sicko.
Instead, American Chaos is reminiscent of those dumbed-down, man-on-the-street segments on late-night TV talk shows, but it’s disguised as a truth-seeking operation. During his stops in states like West Virginia, Stern broods and frowns at the opinions of Trump voters so much, moviegoers might wonder if producers were standing by with smelling salts in case he fainted. Sure, as a liberal, one will definitely be stunned at the sentiment Stern captures on camera, but there’s nothing unique about the encounters offered to audiences. Stern should have embraced his progressive inclinations and challenged some of the batshit crazy things some Trump devotees say. Instead, he chose to simply sit back with a look of disappointment plastered on his face.
American Chaos isn’t compelling or deep. Interviewing attendees at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland isn’t groundbreaking journalism. Viewers might get more entertainment value if they spent a few minutes with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog instead.