What’s the matter, too soon? If ever there were a case where timing was vital to a film’s success, it would be “Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time,” a kind of epilogue to “The Circus,” Showtime’s documentary series about the 2016 election. Executive produced by veteran political reporters Mark Halperin and John Heilemann (hosts of Bloomberg TV’s “With All Due Respect”) as well as former George W. Bush political advisor Mark McKinnon, “Trumped” is formed from “thousands of hours of unused footage shot for ‘The Circus’ from the start of the party nomination contests to Election Day.”
Even Heilemann has to admit, “It’s all very meta.”
The movie opens during the pre-dawn hours of November 8th, 2016, with Hillary Clinton greeting roaring crowds after touching down in New York to cast her vote. Heilemann interviews Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, asking how he will feel if they lose. Podesta’s reply: “It’s hard to even contemplate that.”
From there, the movie’s namesake makes his first appearance, when then-citizen Donald J. Trump announced his candidacy for President in June of 2015, and for the the first time the country heard a presidential candidate call all Mexicans rapists. “People lose their jobs over words like that,” says one incredulous pundit in voiceover. It’s unsettling (though not surprising) to remember how distant the possibility of a Trump presidency seemed then.
Further synopsis is immaterial; we know how this story ends (and there’s the rub). Certainly, historical documentaries have told familiar stories before. But how historical is a documentary when the events are so close in the rearview mirror they’re still causing accidents? Touting the dubious claim of “unprecedented access,” Showtime clearly wants “Trumped” to be the next “Weiner,” one of the best political documentaries of the decade. “Weiner” succeeded because of its (actually) unprecedented access, true. But it also succeeded in providing a new perspective on past events while remaining highly relevant to current ones.
Every day, the news cycle briefs us on Trump’s latest blustering. Americans are still mentally preparing for the deluge four more years will bring. However, as “Trumped” reveals in its behind-the-scenes footage — Trump backstage at a rally, a one-on-one interview on his private jet, John Podesta at a trendy Brooklyn restaurant — fatigue gives way to curiosity, and the circus draws us in again.
There’s Megyn Kelly (in a scene that presages her purported $5 million dollar book deal), gleefully assessing her ratings before the final debate. She’s shocked that people are tailgating, but she sounds like a hopped-up high school football coach when she tells McKinnon, “Either way, we’re gonna win. If it’s boring or electric, everyone’s gonna watch.” (Of note: Any intended criticism of Kelly by including this admission is undermined by this film’s very existence).
There’s also the bizarre image of former Richard Nixon advisor and longtime Trump confidante Roger Stone eating steak in a zoot suit at the Russian Tea Room while discussing alleged “back channels to Julian Assange.” The man clearly taught Trump a thing or two: “The worst thing in politics, next to being wrong, is being boring,” he says.
And, in the film’s most memorable moment, there’s the man himself explaining to Heilemann the Clintons’ presence at his wedding to Melania in 2005: “It’s nothing personal, it’s just business,” says the President. “That’s a mafia saying,” Heilemann points out.
As the events approach closer and closer to present day, concluding with election night, the film’s odd timing becomes more pronounced. It’s easy to imagine a documentary coming along in five or 10 years that cuts through the noise, but it won’t be this one.
“Trumped” bets that, having seen everything in the circus tent, viewers will want to enter the hall of mirrors. However, this is deja vu without the fun. If the election was indeed a circus (and Trump the clown of our nightmares) then “Trumped” is like watching the same show in a closer seat. The problem is, nobody liked watching the first time around.
“Trumped” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2017. It will be available on Showtime on February 3rd.