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Showtime’s election documentary Trumped is lazy mythmaking, not journalism

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‘Last week, on American Democracy...’

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In the first few moments of Showtime’s upcoming documentary Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time, Hillary Clinton’s campaign plane touches down. It’s the night before the election, and journalist John Heilemann speaks briefly with campaign chairman John Podesta, asking him what will happen if Clinton doesn’t prevail on Election Day. Podesta echoes a sentiment that pundits, and reportedly both campaigns, believed to be true: that Donald J. Trump would not win. But what at the time had no doubt been a bit of cautious optimism plays in retrospect like a moment of dark foreboding; a calm before a cataclysmic storm.

Showtime had been producing an ongoing docuseries throughout the presidential race called The Circus, featuring Heilemann and then-Bloomberg colleague Mark Halperin as they covered both campaigns. In the wake of the upset, the team decided to make a feature-length documentary, using all the footage they had collected along the way. There’s a tremendous opportunity in taking the events of the last 19 months and reassessing what happened, particularly in the interest of understanding what socio-political trends led to November 8th, and whether some of the more sinister revelations of recent weeks had been telegraphed much sooner.

Unfortunately, Trumped isn’t interested in any of that.

What’s the genre?

Documentary. More specifically, it’s a Listing Events As They Happened In Chronological Order Without Commentary Or Analysis documentary.

What’s it about?

The 2016 US presidential election.

What’s it really about?

The events that made up the 2016 US presidential election — and I mean that quite literally. There is no over-arching story or lessons to be gleaned from Trumped. It is simply a beat-by-beat breakdown of some (but not all) of the key events that happened during the 2016 campaign. But it’s from an extremely high-level, superficial view, so we see Trump’s campaign announcement, stump speeches, and moments from debates and press conferences (you know, the things that most Americans already saw) while everything else is largely left by the wayside. There’s no discussion of the alt-right, or the economic forces that made Trump’s message appeal to so many. The state of race relations in the United States isn’t featured prominently. Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s role is never explored, nor does the film ever really touch upon the campaign’s reported connections to Russia. There are several interviews with Trump advisor Roger Stone, who makes so many foreboding comments he comes across as a Bond villain — but even then the film never bothers following up or connecting any dots.

The entire thing plays like the kind of recap you’d get at the start of a new season of Game of Thrones, before abruptly ending on Election Night without even covering the reaction from either campaign. In select moments, the audience does get to see Heilemann and Halperin react to events as they happen — they thought Trump’s Access Hollywood tape would destroy him, for example — but they’re fleeting. The only kind of narrative intent comes in the final moments when both journalists offer their candid reactions when they realize Trump had won. (Spoiler: they both thought it was devastating for the country.)

But is it any good?

If you’ve been on an interstellar mission in hypersleep for the last two years, and haven’t read your cryo-debrief packet yet, then this documentary may be for you. But for everybody else, Trumped is like reading the CliffsNotes for a book you’ve just finished. As a historical document, there may very well be value to this kind of tick-tock timeline, but it’s hard to see what purpose it serves now, other than letting Showtime capitalize upon people’s feelings about the election.

With documentary filmmaking in the midst of such a renaissance, we’ve grown used to films that change the way we see our past, and uncover stories of injustice and outrage. That kind of thoughtful exploration and illumination is desperately needed, but Trumped is simply too rushed — and too disinterested in actually stirring the pot — to add anything to the conversation. And by not explaining the forces behind Trump’s rise — the socio-political trends, the recent behavior of the parties, the interference and hacking from foreign governments — the film does something even more nefarious: it gives off the impression that it was just some unknowable, Trump-ian magic that led to the election results. Pair that with the full title — Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time — and the movie starts to feel more like reality TV mythmaking than journalism.

What should it be rated?

Let’s give this one an “R” for copious amounts of profanity and foreshadowing the end of humanity.

How can I actually watch it?

Honestly, you already have. But if you want a repeat viewing, Trumped will debut on Showtime on February 3rd.