Half a decade ago, the ascendance of the alt-right was about as plausible as the election of Donald Trump, and we all know how that worked out. Like the 2016 election, director Daniel Lombroso’s provocative alt-right portrait “White Noise” isn’t all that surprising, but that doesn’t lessen the terror within. In capturing the racist trifecta of alt-right pundits Mike Cernovich, Laura Southern, and Richard Spencer, the documentary shows how they became emboldened by celebrity stature, and comes so close to letting them run the show it risks trumpeting their cause. Fortunately, it doesn’t take the most discerning bullshit detector to realize that “White Noise” has been engineered to expose a fundamental danger to whatever moral fabric America has left. Lombroso has made the scariest documentary of the year without telling us anything new.
However, for the lucky few who somehow avoided any of this movie’s subjects and their small armies of white nationalist devotees, “White Noise” provides a handy primer (and just enough to avoid the need to dig further). Working closely with his subjects over the course of several years, Lombroso seems to have gained their trust, and his camera manages to track them across boisterous media appearances as they flaunt their provocative stupidity to every possible camera, including many adoring crowds.
Yet it also finds them at an inflection point — empowered by Trump’s election, but uncertain how to clarify the next steps. Spencer, the neo-Nazi who went viral for his infamous “Heil Trump” speech in 2016, annoys the hell out of Cernovich, the nebbishy “anti-feminist” blogger who prefers to deem his loathsome views as a defense against “white genocide.” Splitting the difference between the two, 25-year-old Canadian YouTube star Lauren Southern spouts maniacal xenophobic arguments against immigration and women’s rights with a camera-ready smirk that hangs over her most radical pronouncements like an awkward Trojan horse. Zipping between these as it maps out their deranged community, the movie implies varying degrees of danger on display: Spencer’s Hitleresque ambition makes for quite the horror show, but Cernovich’s unassuming dopiness and Southern’s next-gen Ann Coulter charm are just as alarming for the way they attempt to soften their putrid views with personality. At its worst, “White Noise” goes there with them.
Like Errol Morris’ unnerving “American Dharma,” the filmmaker’s feature-length one-on-one with alt-right folk hero Steve Bannon, “White Noise” enters a moral gray zone by virtue of its very existence. Yes, there’s no ambiguity about the source of outrage when a Colombia University audience revolts against Cernovich, or journalists assail Spencer for his role in inciting the Charlottesville riots that resulted in one woman’s death. Yet as the movie follows the traditional cinema verite beats by watching its characters go to work, it often doesn’t go far enough in clarifying its moral compass. Viewers can sort most of it out for themselves, but the movie’s give-em-enough-rope philosophy means that even as “White Noise” exposes the culture of internet-based disinformation that created these monsters, it actually becomes a part of the same problematic spotlight that thrust them onto the national stage.
Still, there’s a fascinating gamble involved in the way the movie dares viewers to stomach its most upsetting moments, most of which come from Southern, who seems to navigate the backlash with aplomb at every turn. That includes her delight over the positive reaction to her disingenuous immigration documentary “Borderless” to the moronic declarations she manages to toss out to appreciative crowds. (“Go to Africa and you will see rape culture” being one of many.) Spencer, whose style sense is best described as “fascist boy band,” looks increasingly pathetic as his crowds dwindle post-Charlottesville, while Cernovich is reduced to selling skin-care products after the media gets over his rebel image. Southern, by contrast, almost comes across as a source of sympathy. One shocking moment finds Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes propositioning her after an interview, and the sense of individuality she expresses in that moment creates one of the more troubling conflicts the movie offers up. Southern doesn’t deserve to be anyone’s hero, but “White Noise” dares to make her human.
Documentarians have been holding their noses in these putrid depths of bigotry for decades. Michael Moore and Kevin Rafferty’s “Blood in the Face” made clear the ambitions of neo-Nazis on American soil almost 30 years ago, while Morris’ Bannon doc came out shortly before another more explicit condemnation of the man in Alison Klayman’s “The Brink.” Yet “White Noise” comes across as the most harrowing of the bunch, less for the evil it exposes than the extent it allows them to control the narrative.
If there’s any source of comfort that comes from spending time with these loonies — aside from, hey, you really ought to vote in this election — it comes from the implication that they might just cancel each other out. As Cernovich derides Spencer’s Nazism for “holding us back,” while Spencer recalls Cernovich’s previous career as “a really gross sex-blogger,” it’s enough to make the case that they could simply scream each other into oblivion. (Spencer, who’s living with his mother and facing pending criminal charges, may face more precise justice than that.) The jury’s still out on Southern, now a young mother and wife (to a non-white person, though she won’t get into that for the camera), but let’s hope this particular open-ended character doesn’t merit a sequel.
In fact, let’s hope society doesn’t. “White Noise” culminates by letting its subjects share their delusions of grandeur, but can’t sort out if they’re pathetic or practical in these uncertain times. The documentary stops short of investigating how the world got this way, or what it will take to set things right. It might have helped, in a movie so committed to stating its main problem, to offer some semblance of solution. (Hello, education!) Nevertheless, “White Noise” has a compelling message at its core, by daring viewers to see the worst of our society, and cautioning against the tendency to simply tuning it out.
“White Noise” is now available for VOD rental.