Review: American Chaos, More Like a Bad Memory of 2016 Than a Call to Arms

Film poster courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

My issues with the new documentary American Chaos have more to do with the timing of its release than anything else. The film was shot during the six months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, and director James D. Stern, a fairly heart-on-his-sleeve liberal, traveled to certain key areas in states like Florida and West Virginia to try and figure out why Trump supporters from such vastly different backgrounds were supporting a billionaire candidate with no governmental experience. Sure, rich guys were backing him, but why would a Latino small business owner or a coal worker, and the result at the time made the filmmaker sense something about the attitude of the nation that pollsters and news organizations weren’t picking up on at the time, and spent months analyzing and dissecting after the election.

Since it appears that all of Stern’s shooting ended just a couple of days after the election, it should have been possible to get this film out maybe in mid-2017, but nearly two years after Trump’s election, the messages of the film are a bit played out. Not only are we well aware of the hearts and minds of most Trump supporters, but based on Trump’s statements and actions as president, I wonder if all of these pre-election supporters are still on his side. The ugliest sides of most of the people interviewed in the doc come out when talking about Hillary Clinton (whom most of them see as simply an extension of President Obama, apparently their sworn enemy), and it becomes clear that the more that Trump presented himself as standing against everything Clinton stood for, the more his supporters would back him.

American Chaos does an admirable job of showing how ill-informed and eager to find an enemy many Americans have allowed themselves to become. They believe and spread the version of the truth that best frames their beliefs and ignore logic and facts, which is upsetting, but a year and a half ago, it would have been eye opening in a film like this. Perhaps the release is meant to be timed with the upcoming midterm elections, but even that doesn’t make sense because the movie is so focused on Trump and not on other Republican politicians.

The moment that has the most impact in American Chaos takes place on election night, when news organizations were saying there was no way Clinton could lose. Director Stern attends an election party, and we watch as the air gets sucked out of the room and the other attendees are rendered speechless. The film exposes how eager some are to make excuses for those we support, even if that person isn’t worthy of being supported. A local minister saying of Trump’s many affairs that it’s better to elect someone whose flaws we know rather than someone who keeps secrets (I guess he’s talking about Clinton), or the elderly woman screaming (at no one in particular) at the women who didn’t report the bad behavior that Trump detailed on the Access Hollywood tape, and instead waited until right before the election to release the tape (even though it wasn’t these women who released the footage).

It’s one thing to put out a politicized documentary to get people riled up and moved to action if such an opportunity to act upon those feelings presents itself in the not-too-distant future. But American Chaos in its current context is more of a curiosity or footnote than anything actionable, which is a shame because I believe that an emotional appeal has a great deal of value in moving people and changing their minds. This is more like a bad memory than a call to arms.

The film opens today exclusively at AMC River East 21.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.