Documentaries are supposed to be a long-lens medium: hundreds of hours of footage culled together for a coherent narrative of what went wrong, or an amazing glimpse into a world we’d never otherwise see. But just as Donald Trump has managed to redefine what passes as politics and truth, he’s sparked an unprecedented upheaval in the documentary world, as filmmakers rush to screen footage of his actions almost as soon as they’ve happened.
Even 24-hour news organizations have trouble keeping up with Donald Trump, so documentaries certainly can’t manage a truly real-time response. But it’s been amazing to see two documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival — Trumped: The Inside Story of the Greatest Political Upset of All Time and Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and Trials of a Free Press — give it a try.
The former was cut together over the past two months, starting the week after the election, from thousands of hours of footage gathered for Showtime’s docuseries The Circus, starring renowned political reporters John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. (Full disclosure: Heilemann used to write for New York Magazine.) That series itself was a radical experiment in real-time filmmaking — shot six days a week on multiple campaign trails and aired on the seventh, before Showtime had even seen the final cut. The movie’s final shots are of Heilemann and Halperin (who’d spent 260 days out of the past 365 on the road) at the Javitz Center and New York Hilton, respectively, looks of utter devastation and shock on their faces, wondering aloud how they could have gotten it so wrong. They finished editing the movie the night before showing it to journalists at a sneak preview at Sundance on Monday.
Nobody Speak began as a documentary about billionaire Peter Thiel’s funding of a lawsuit that Hulk Hogan filed against Gawker Media for publishing a video of him having sex with the wife of his friend Bubba the Love Sponge. Soon, it had turned into a movie not just about the destruction of Gawker, but the threat that billionaires can pose to a media landscape where nearly every outlet is struggling to find enough revenue to stay in business. And finally, the film became a call to arms about one single billionaire, Donald Trump, now waging an all-out war against the press from the White House. Nobody Speak first screened on Tuesday, and somehow includes footage of both last Friday’s inauguration and Saturday’s marches. Director Brian Knappenberger (The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Schwartz) says his editor didn’t deliver it to Sundance until Monday, the day before its premiere. “He drove it up to Park City in a two-wheel-drive car in a blizzard. Every part of it was dramatic. I felt like it fit the circumstances.”
Neither documentary offers much in the way of news for any well-informed viewer. But both feel like essential documents. Trumped is a greatest-hits compilation of the presidential campaign, with a deep focus on Trump: The movie takes us inside his jet several times, up into his Trump Tower campaign headquarters, and on the grounds of his Mar-a-Lago estate. We see footage of him making fun of a disabled journalist, urging his supporters to punch reporters in the face, calling Mexicans rapists — all things we know and have heard over and over again, but which take on a different light now that he’s won. You can see the cruelty of his tone and his expressions, cut together in a string of offenses, and juxtaposed with jubilant footage of supporters flocking to his rallies like they’re headed to a rock concert. “I love him! I grew up watching him on The Apprentice!” says one cute female fan. Another male supporter points out that at least Trump keeps things interesting; you just want to show up to see what happens next. It feels like an important reminder that Trump won in part by turning politics into a raucous slobs-vs.-snobs keg party.
Mostly, the doc chronicles Heilemann, Halperin, and co-host Mark McKinnon as stand-ins for the media at large, as they go from thinking Trump can never win (“Maybe he’s not cut out for [campaigning],” Halperin posits early on), to worrying that he might, to finally, devastatingly, realizing that he has. (“Now I have to go on TV and say I was wrong, and we have to figure out why we were all wrong,” Heilemann says, looking spent.)
And through it all is Trump himself, who projects an insatiable thirst that seems to contradict campaign-era reports that he never wanted the job. “Why do you think you’re doing so well?” Halperin asks Trump aboard his jet. “This is the most exciting thing they’ve ever seen,” says Trump. “This Showtime show is going to do very well off me.” How does he think he’ll win? “They know me,” says Trump. “I grew up with America on The Apprentice. I have a voice. Everyone else, people don’t know them, they need to buy commercials. I need a tweet.”
Most interesting is the time the reporters spend in the various lairs of “Trump confidante” Roger Stone, who was ousted from the campaign around the time Corey Lewandowski became campaign manager, but still speaks with insight into the minds of both Trump and America at large. “Politics is kill or be killed and Trump is a brawler,” Stone says early on. “It’s the same technique as in business, and people are going to keep tuning in because it’s like dealing with live ammunition.” After the “grab them by the pussy” leak, and before the Comey letter drops, Stone warns Heilemann not to count Trump out: “He just needs a few breaks.”
To watch the movie is to wonder who knew what, and when — and if Trump’s win could’ve been prevented if we’d all stopped chasing the flashing lights of his outrageous comments. Heilemann, at a post-screening Q&A at Sundance, said that he and other journalists will need to not only question their reliance on polls, but also check their impulse to focus on candidates and campaigns instead of the electorate. “[A campaign] is the greatest competition in the world, for the highest stakes,” he said, but the real challenge will be to figure out how politics is impacting people on the ground.
Heilemann also called on reporters “not to be dispassionate,” but to “be passionate for things that matter, like truth and accountability … for calling bullshit whenever necessary.” The job of journalists, he said, is to distinguish legitimate gray zones from what is truly black and white. “We, as a profession, need to be adamant about insisting on reality, and that we live in a reality-based community, or the whole fucking thing falls apart.”
There’s far more news in the Gawker doc, which gets tons of emotional footage of founder Nick Denton and former editor-in-chief A.J. Daulerio as the $140.1 million judgment in the Hulk Hogan lawsuit bankrupts the company they love. Look beyond the lurid spectacle of a pro-wrestler’s sex tape, and you’ll see the unthinkably high stakes of what happens when celebrities and billionaires not only get to control content, but can destroy publications that publish stories they don’t like. If you’ve been following the story, you know that Peter Thiel (co-founder of PayPal and an early Facebook investor) was nursing an eight-year grudge against Gawker for publishing a story outing him as gay. A billionaire funding a lawsuit is legal, and happens all the time. What was unprecedented in this case was that the billionaire was funding a lawsuit not for financial gain, but as an act of revenge.
To any longtime Gawker reader who remembers just how vicious its posts could be, the movie tries a little too hard to paint the site as a heroic truth-teller. But the case the doc presents, of Gawker as a victim of a Republican-run system hostile to New York media elites, is compelling. They were doomed, it seems, the second the case got kicked from a federal court to one in Florida, headed by right-wing activist judge Pamela Campbell, who refused to allow evidence from Bubba the Love Sponge and his wife that Hulk Hogan had consented to the tape.
From Gawker’s defeat, Knappenberger draws a line to the surprise December 2015 sale of the Las Vegas Review-Journal to a mysterious group of investors. It’s the newsiest part of the movie, and a portrait of heroism in miniature. Vexed at management’s refusal to tell them who their new owners were, the paper’s reporters began digging and found a trail leading to casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who’d bought the paper in order to have approval over any story about himself. Then, in a move that ended most of their careers, they published their report on the front page. To date, some 100 reporters have left the paper.
It’s Thiel, and his connection to Trump, though, that elevates the doc from a harrowing story of something crappy that happened to a couple of publications, to a warning cry about future threats to the media industry. In Knappenberger’s hands, old footage takes on new context. He intercuts shots of Thiel endorsing Trump at the RNC and Trump squeezing Thiel’s hand in a boardroom with footage of Trump telling CNN, “You are fake news.” (Yes, the doc is that up-to-date.)
What’s at stake is the idea that, with enough money, and the right guy in office, billionaires and corporations can decide that the First Amendment doesn’t protect speech they find distasteful. Its timing, unfortunately, is excellent. As the movie was screening at Sundance, six reporters who’d been arrested in the protests against the inauguration were charged with felonies. A week earlier, Sheldon Adelson settled a lawsuit he had filed against a Wall Street Journal reporter for calling him “foul-mouthed” in an article. As reporters who appeared in the movie reminded the audience in Park City, the Hulk Hogan suit wasn’t the only one against Gawker; it’s just the one that won. And in the bankruptcy, Gawker had to pay $750,000 to Shiva Ayyadurai, who’d sued the company for accurately refuting his claims that he invented email. Plus, Hogan’s lawyer, Charles Harder, is suing the Daily Mail on behalf of Melania Trump, and is reportedly representing Roger Ailes in his threatened lawsuit against this magazine and our reporter, Gabriel Sherman.
In other words, this isn’t over. And if journalists want to prevent another wave of real-time docs about the disintegration of our profession come next Sundance, we’re in for a fight. That is, if there is even such a thing as documentaries next year.