Sundance 2017: Getting “TRUMPED” Makes for Electrifying Cinema

Directed by: Banks Tarver, Ted Bourne, Mary Robertson
Featuring: Mark Halperin, John Heilemann, Mark McKinnon, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Kellyanne Conway
Produced by: Kevin Vargas
Executive Produced by: Mark Halperin, John Heilemann, Mark McKinnon, Banks Tarver, Ken Druckerman, Scott Boggins
Music by: Paul Brill
Editing by: Alicia Ellis, Benji Kast, Mike Lahaie, Matthew Luhrman
Cinematography by: Oliver Anderson, Andrew Dunn, Cameron Glendenning, Jeremy Gould, Laura Hudock, Thom Stukas, Matt Valentine
Official Selection of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival

*****
Editor’s Note: This list of credits undoubtedly elides the contributions of unknown crew members of TRUMPED. CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism will update this article to reflect additional contributions as new information about the production comes to light. Thank you for your understanding – SLM.

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*****

On a hot streak after last year’s tremendously regarded Anthony Weiner documentary, Showtime has managed to turn around another politically-minded feature in record time. TRUMPED: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time finished principal photography, editing, color-correction, sound mixing, and shipping off, all between November 8th, 2016 – when Emmy Award® nominee Donald Trump (The Nanny, Home Alone 2) was elected President of the United States – and January 20, 2017. That weekend held the film’s first screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where strong relations with the network have historically resulted in several prominent national documentaries having their premieres (including Weiner.) Even more abruptly, the new doc, directed by nonfiction television stalwarts Banks Tarver, Ted Bourne, and Mary Robertson, will air on Showtime this Friday, February 3rd.

Though there’s nothing new about Sundance featuring politically-themed nonfiction, TRUMPED is notable for how strongly its escalated visual and editorial polish contrasts with its cohorts at this year’s festival. An unusually large array of the films in both the 2017 Documentary Premieres and competition categories applied a fly-on-the-wall, strong-fourth-wall strategy to their investigations of immigration, race, capitalism, and free speech. Not so with Bourne, Tarver, and Robertson’s approach, which entwines a series of exclusive interviews with bureaucrats and archival footage collected over the last 18 months of political coverage in the United States. The result is a handsome, grandiloquent psychological nonfiction thriller that benefits from elaborate improvisations by a gifted editorial team: Alicia Ellis, Benji Kast, Mike Lahaie, and Matthew Luhrman.

These four storytellers have engaged with the most public of historical narratives as fantasy, reimagined in their hands as mythic popular memory. Our first image, unexpectedly, is not of a politician, but of a symbolic vehicle: the Hillary Clinton campaign’s jet at the end of its usefulness. Like Inside Llewyn Davis or Frank V. Ross’s Bloomin Mud Shuffle, this film uses circularity (rather than linearity) to tell a tale of unrelenting, Job-like misfortune. But, in a fit of clever cinema, this plane becomes our tragic protagonist. The editors immediately present questions to the jet, asked and answered in quick succession: why are you here, and why so blue?

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Though this movie’s essence is in its probing editors’ work, the filmmakers also provide surrogate narrators in the form of political correspondents Mark Halperin, John Heilemann, and Mark McKinnon. Best known as three members of the Showtime/Bloomberg punditry program The Circus, these long-time colleagues fill in (often unsuitably) for our basest stereotypes of engaged male journalists. Mark Halperin, who edits Bloomberg Politics, is the dominant figure here, trading light jabs and quick witticisms with Kellyanne Conway, Jeb Bush, and Donald Trump himself. As TRUMPED progresses, Halperin never lets a hair out of place, unflappable in his confident affection for the sometimes degrading exchanges with politicians and fellow journalists. Only as the tenor of the campaign shifts from mutually antagonistic amongst the candidates to potentially earth-shattering does his upper lip begin to sweat.

John Heilemann represents the most easily shaken of us Americans who considered the election results assured in the negative. As a result, Heilemann’s interviews with Trump are amongst the most compelling, as the President seems to grow in stature and composure whenever they meet. Whether his ability to control the conversation so easily comes from condescension towards Heilemann’s ever-changing glasses selection is debatable, but the editors must have had a hell-of-a-time choosing which frames fit which scenes best. Still, when these two individuals meet, there is a palpable sense of hostility that converts their dialogue into battles of the will. We see Trump hold ineffable eye-contact while Heilemann’s eyes dart and his hands swing with loose emphasis; together, these political power players could star in a cerebral Highlander remake.

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Among the supporting players, Mark McKinnon handles limited screen time with the gravity of a genius, smiling under his trademark cowboy hat for the entirety of the film. A former consultant on The Newsroom and House of Cards, McKinnon stands in for the soft-spoken, consummate gentle-man, always considering the camera’s presence in the directions he walks and in his strut. He is a star of little comparison to Heilemann and Halperin, only matched here by the brief, astonishing moments with Trump’s former competitors. Jeb Bush, in particular, allows The Circus in for a moment of real humanity during a stressful radio appearance; and Ted Cruz provides unfettered access for Halperin at a key moment in his flagging campaign. In their unexpected vulnerability, these candidates become like the victims of the serial killer in Zodiac: exposed, naïve, and disbelieving to the end.

As operatic as Hitchcock with a Shyamalanian ending, the film plays on the audience’s expectation of terror, extending what McKinnon calls “the earthquake” of revelation to its final possible moments. Please understand that I don’t use the Shyamalan reference lazily here. I was reminded of the first time I saw The Sixth Sense, a decade after its release, by which point I was fully aware of both its ending and its many parodies. The genius of Shyamalan’s script, though, is that the second viewing is the most essential: only those aware of the infamous twist can appreciate the beauty of Tak Fujimoto’s ethereal cinematography, Larry Fulton’s isolating production design, and James Newton Howard’s lilting melodies. The ending is our way back into the film, not out of it.

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So while the films do not resemble one another visually, that same principle of entertainment which guided me into unholy fear in that 2010 viewing operates on a larger scale here. The doc’s many directors of photography (the seven credited are Oliver Anderson, Andrew Dunn, Cameron Glendenning, Jeremy Gould, Laura Hudock, Thom Stukas, and Matt Valentine) avoid static or overly curated framing – no Dutch angles, no low-key/high-contrast noir lighting, and no shocking close-ups of a hideous face. Often, they shoot just above Trump’s sitting eye-level, flattening the space around him and, perhaps intentionally, minimizing his presence in a crowded room. Only in archival photography of debates (often shot by other DPs than the ones listed above) does the President reign over his competitors. Nor does Paul Brill’s humming, electronica-heavy score push into the hyper-tense territory mastered over the last several years by Johann Johannsson (though the presence of the genius Icelandic composer hangs heavy here.) Brill makes his most haunting push at the denouement, when we revisit the all-important Clinton jet before the election itself.

In this way, The Sixth Sense and TRUMPED are more fraternal in nature than identical, but their tonal relationship is unnervingly close. Their strongest similarities are in their assemblies, which hang too often on sharply unpleasant revelations, whether they be in Haley Joel Osment’s imagination or in Hillary Clinton’s. Far from suffering due to its already announced conclusion, TRUMPED reiterates a truth learned by rewatching The Sixth Sense: that the known can be even more dreadful than the unknown, depending on the consequences.

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