One of the characters on Sacha Baron Cohen’s recent satirical Showtime series “Who is America?” was “Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello,” a “self-hating white male” college professor who bicycles around “our fractured nation” trying to “heal the divide” in the wake of the election of Donald Trump.
Cohen used the character to expose the rigid thinking and small-minded bigotry of some hardcore conservatives. But Dr. Cain-N’Degeocello also was a hilariously over-the-top caricature lampooning a certain type of earnest, self-important, righteous liberal crusader who truly wants to understand the mentality of the far-right — so he can explain to them why they’re so very, very wrong.
James D. Stern, the director and affable star of the documentary “American Chaos,” comes across as the kind of self-effacing guy who would recognize a little bit of himself in the Cohen character and find the humor in it — and then would bend your ear for an hour explaining why, jokes aside, we are a country in crisis.
“It … feels like a white guy’s world,” says Stern, a white guy, as he covers the GOP convention in Cleveland.
“American Chaos” is actually about the lead-up to the election, starting in the spring of 2016, when, to the shock of seasoned political observers, Donald J. Trump was on his way to destroying the putative frontrunners from the GOP.
Stern lays it out for us at the outset: he comes from a liberal, Democratic family; his brother spent more than half a decade as one of President Obama’s top consultants on climate change; he can’t even fathom why anyone would vote for Trump.
So he sets off for Florida, West Virginia and Arizona — and the Republican National Convention in Cleveland — in an effort to get to know Trump’s supporters, to listen to them, to try to understand where they’re coming from.
Ranchers in Arizona explain what it’s like to deal with illegal immigrants crossing onto their property on a regular basis for 20 years. Unemployed coal miners in West Virginia express their hope Trump will bring back jobs. A prominent Cuban who has lived in Florida for decades explains why he supports Trump’s immigration policies. A conservative radio host (correctly) predicts the outcome of the election to Stern at a time when the so-called experts were saying Hillary Clinton was a 95 percent favorite.
Stern is admirably respectful and open to what they’re saying, even when their opinions are based on incredibly wobbly ground. There are moments when we can almost see a light bulb over his head, as he realizes why this movement is taking place.
Only occasionally does Stern engage in Michael Moore-style theatrics, e.g., showing up at the gates of Mar-a-Lago, of course being denied entry and saying, “This is the guy who’s the man of the people?”
Much more often, he comes across as a sincere presence who is almost too polite and doesn’t challenge some interviewees who make wildly inaccurate and sometimes racist assertions based on ignorant viewpoints. But it could be argued his gentle, respectful style of an effective tool to get his subjects to reveal their true selves.
Stern’s inclusion of an L.A. viewing party of the second debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton is also enlightening. We see an almost cliched collection of beautiful, smart people getting together, having a borderline-smug collective feeling of “We got this,” watching the debate — and realizing this might not be the slam-dunk they thought it would be. (“She did … fine,” says one viewing party guest about Clinton’s performance. Hardly a resounding high-five.)
On Election Day, Stern is heartbroken as he talks to learned insiders and realizes his worst fear is about to come true: Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States of America. He tries to tack on an optimistic epilogue, but it feels forced and unconvincing.
Stick with your instincts, good sir. Keep questioning how we got to where we are.
Sony Pictures Classics presents a documentary directed by James D. Stern. Rated R (for some language including sexual references). Running time: 90 minutes. Opens Friday at AMC River East.