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Trump-Era Cinema: The Uncomfortable Necessity of Reliving the 2016 Election

One year after a shocking 2016 election, several new movies confront that decisive — and, for many, quite painful — moment.

The 2016 presidential election was a surreal period, with a November 8 outcome that unfolded with the intensity of a horror movie — you know, the kind where the monster that supposedly died a few minutes earlier springs back to life to launch a whole new franchise. Of course, some members of the electorate felt differently. Depending on your point of view, the Trump victory was either a traumatizing jolt or a happy ending, and as the one year anniversary looms we’ve got movies that wrestle with both sides of the equation.

One them is a sequel. In 2008, film distribution executive Jeff Deutchman launched the crowdsourced “11/4/08,” gathering footage from countless filmmakers who captured the highlights of a historic voting day. The result was a rah-rah celebration of the Obama victory on a personal scale, with intimate bonding scenes at voting stations and giddy faces generating a kind of utopian fever. In retrospect, the movie — which sorely lacked prominent Republican perspectives — perfectly illustrates the nascent bubble of confidence that dominated election expectations eight years later.

Deutchman’s followup, “11/8/16” (now in limited release via The Orchard), was obviously conceived with the same idealistic intentions. Instead, the movie unfolds like a slow-burn thriller, shifting between 16 different subjects in 13 states for a fascinating, scattershot countdown to the inevitable shocking finale.

Casting a much wider net this time around, Deutchman’s scope provides a remarkably complex window into the country’s fractured identity. There are Dreamers and Muslims fearful of Trump’s rhetoric, a West Virginia coal miner beaming from beneath his “Make America Great Cap,” a staunch pro-Trump military veteran, and a lifelong union activist. Expunged from the footage is any imagery of the candidates themselves; instead, the movie communes with their reverberations. 

Notably, Deutchman selected only first-rate, professional footage by genuine filmmaking talent, culled from over 300 hours of material, and avoided subjects with the potential to overwhelm other stories. Dozens of filmmakers submitted footage; the final product is defined as much by what Deutchman didn’t include as what he did. (Lena Dunham was one subject whose experiences didn’t make the final cut.) Among the chosen ones, Vikram Ghandi, who also directed “young Obama” portrait “Barry,” embeds himself in the lion’s den of giddy Trump fans in Pennsylvania, capturing a non-ironic celebratory moment that completely rewires perceptions about the nature of that night.

Other directors, such as “After Tiller” co-director Martha Shane (one of two editors on the project, with Jon Lefkovitz), follow eager Clinton fans in an oblivious march to gloom. Yet here and there a truthteller looms, including a young New York artist who anticipates Trump’s victory while speaking with an optimistic liberal parent.

“I think we are a bunch of racist, sexist, divided, hateful people,” she says. “We all have blood on our hands as Americans.”

“11/8/16”

So: Who wants to revisit all that? At this point, virtually every part of the political spectrum has something to resent about the outcome of election night. Yet “11/8/16” is more than just a clip show of democracy gone wrong. The movie rewinds the event from so many perspectives that no one viewer will only experience an exact replica of the night. It’s an all-inclusive reality check: In a rollicking 12-hour period, America glanced in the mirror, and saw a million broken pieces. Deutchman’s work takes pains to put them back together.

Onur Tukel’s “The Misogynists” — which has yet to land U.S. distribution — reckons with the night from a far more acerbic perspective. The Turkish-American comedy director’s most outrageous farce to date takes place almost exclusively within the confines of a New York City hotel room, where avowed Trump fan and reckless businessman Cameron (Dylan Baker) celebrates Trump’s win with his bashful co-worker, closet Hillary supporter Baxter (Jamie Block), as the pair plow through mountains of cocaine and prostitutes while driving the hotel guests nuts.

The light-hearted music and cityscape suggest a Woody Allen movie in which crazed, neurotic characters express themselves with cartoonish topicality. Baker pushes himself to subversive extremes, unleashing one vulgar monologue after another under the guise of “locker-room talk” and proclaiming the superiority of his gender. The shock is that, in light of the Trump win, just how accurate they sound.

Tukel’s overwritten dialogue is an acquired taste, but his blending of the chatty New York movie tropes with a loony underground sensibility (previously seen to hilarious effect in “Summer of Blood” and “Applesauce”) lets him show how Trumpian vernacular can steamroll rational thought. Tukel squeezes in a dash of magic realism with a TV set that turns on by itself, showing footage playing backward throughout the night. It’s an obvious device, but then again, so was Trump’s rhetoric. The end of the world, Tukel seems to argue, throws subtext to the wind.

While these movies engage directly with the vulgar, invasive quality of election night, Greg Barker’s “The Final Year” explores the timeline leading up to it. Ostensibly a measured look at the final 12 months of the Obama Administration, this painful nostalgia trip to stabler times (which premiered at TIFF, opens New York’s DOC NYC festival next week and hits theaters in January) actually functions as a retroactive illustration of institutional naïveté. Given Trump’s actions, it’s impossible to watch John Kerry valiantly work on locking down the Iran nuclear deal; ditto the Paris climate accords.

“The Final Year”

HBO Documentary Films

The movie ultimately settles on two key figures: Focused U.N. ambassador Samantha Powers, who pushes back on Obama rhetoric and fixates on the many global issues that remain unsolved and her antithesis, right-hand man Ben Rhodes, who comes across as an overconfident just-the-facts senior strategist all too eager to celebrate the Administration’s progress without any concern for maintaining it.

Rhodes refuses to acknowledge the possibility of a Trump victory, only to find himself speechless on election night. It’s an astonishing moment that pushes this otherwise straightforward, celebratory portrait into uncharted terrain. His incapacity to explain, or even react, epitomizes the Democratic response. One year later, the words still don’t come easily, but these movies help fill the void. Now, we brace for the slew of sequels.

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