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Movie review: Political doc 'American Chaos' goes awry when it abandons neutrality


September 14, 2018

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“AMERICAN CHAOS” — 3 stars — directed by Jim Stern; R (some language, including sexual references); Broadway

“American Chaos” sets out to be something really special: a bridge between blue state Democrats and red state Donald Trump supporters. It's compelling, but if it had done a better job of sticking to its plan, “American Chaos” could have been even more impressive.

The documentary follows a steady montage of presidential campaign footage stretching from the early 20th century to 2016. Director James D. Stern is a self-described Kennedy Democrat who grew up in Chicago with Bobby Kennedy as his “first real hero.”

That adoration found a new home with former President Barack Obama, and so Stern was confused by the momentum President Donald Trump gained during the 2016 campaign. His solution? Set out to various red states in the months before the election, find Trump voters and listen to them instead of argue. And for a while, that’s exactly what “American Chaos” is.

Stern starts in Florida with Armund, a longtime Democrat-turned-Republican who insists the party did the leaving, and then visits an anti-Castro Cuban-American named Julio. Reasoned and insightful conversations — or at least portions of them — lead to understanding and context, and Stern begins to wonder if Trump has a legitimate chance to win.

Unfortunately, the “no argue” policy starts to waver at Stern’s next stop in Ohio during the Republican National Convention, where the director begins using cutaways, critical overdubs and interviews with selected experts to refute the subjects of his interviews, which here include a Tea Party member named Marion and a husband-and-wife pastor team.

Things even out a bit in West Virginia, where Stern spends time in coal country with descendants of the real-life Hatfield and McCoy feud. Gradually, Stern starts to realize that the issues and worldviews of the East and West coasts are markedly different from so-called “flyover country,” and this is especially brought to light when Stern spends time with Trump-supporting ranchers along the U.S.-Mexico border, who share stories of offering assistance to immigrants they’ve found in their fields.

Mixed in with the scattered events of 2016 that parallel Stern's journey — the presidential debates, the “Access Hollywood” controversy and Election Day itself — “American Chaos” paints an engaging portrait of a memorable historical stretch, and there are moments along the way where Stern genuinely seems to build a bridge of mutual understanding — if not agreement — with his subjects.

But too often Stern seems determined to use his documentary to refute his Trump-supporting opposition rather than listen as planned — at one point he openly argues with an Air Force veteran in Arizona who is critical of Hillary Clinton. In the end, “American Chaos” feels more like an attempt to validate Stern’s own position rather than come to a true understanding of his opposition.

It’s too bad because it really feels like Stern is on the right track, and “American Chaos” feels like a clever portrait of human nature even if it gets lost in its political goals. There aren’t too many political documentaries out there that feel fair to both sides of their chosen issues. “American Chaos” almost makes the short list.

“American Chaos” is rated R for some language including sexual references; running time: 90 minutes.

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