American Chaos: A Look at the 2016 Election

Left to right: James D. Stern. Photo by Kevin Ford, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

American Chaos is a well-made cinéma-vérité road documentary as a filmmaker travels through Red States seeking to understand their feelings.

Filmmaker James D. Stern travels around the country as he seeks to learn more in six months leading up to Election Day 2016.  Why do Red State Americans maintain feelings against the Obama administration?  The filmmaker travels to those areas of red states to find out why.  The resulting film is one that shows that there is still a stark divide in the nation.

With Americans living in their own respective political bubbles, it was Stern who traveled the road.  People thought this was a foolish project because Hillary Rodham Clinton was expected to win the election.  This makes him one of the few–aside from political pundits–to not be so, umm, shocked, by the results.  He travels to Florida, West Virginia, Arizona, and the RNC in Cleveland.

In spite of these dark times, Stern is able to offer us some nostalgia for the previous administration.  The filmmaker was in the audience at the McCormick Place when President Barack Obama delivered his farewell address in early 2017.  It should be said that Stern has ties to the Obama administration as his brother worked on the Paris Climate Accords.

Speaking of which, American leadership is not what it used to be.  We have a president who believes in launching a war on the media.  One who refuses to accept the realities that transpired during his campaign.  We have a president who acts as unpresidential as anyone holding the office could act.  It’s really sad when his actions make us long for the days of President George W. Bush.

To get a sense of what has happened throughout the country, Stern talks about the 1950s television series, Trackdown.  Set in the Old West following the Civil War, this clip of Trackdown featured a man coming to town with a message and a means to save their citizens.

It wouldn’t be a documentary on the 2016 election without a discussion of the Access Hollywood tape nor the “basket of deplorables” comments,  These two events certainly had an impact on the election.  There’s the talk of all of Clinton’s emails sent through her private server.  I’m curious as to how the people featured have changed their thoughts in the time sense they were filmed.  The whole Robert Mueller investigation has to have changed some of their feelings, right?

“Passion beats pragmatism,” Stern comments at one point.  It’s unfortunately true.  If Americans voted on pragmatism rather than who they would drink a beer with, the results might very well be different.

In a case of perfect symmetry, the film is book-ended by two presidential montages.  One is that of campaign rallies leading up to Election Day.  The latter is that of Inauguration Day.  Both of which culminate with that of the current president.  Both montages will no doubt make us long for better days.

I wish that American Chaos was never made.  It’s not because of the hard work that James D. Stern puts into the film.  Not at all.  It’s because we’re in a bigger mess than we were before Election Day 2016.  A mess we should never have been in to begin with.  In spite of all this, American Chaos is essential to understanding why Red State Americans were in the position to vote as they did.  Stern is able to beautifully capture their feelings.  Disagree with them as I may but they’re entitled to those feelings.


Sony Pictures Classics will open American Chaos in theaters on September 14, 2018.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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