Revisiting the election that broke the mold

James Fletcher’s documentary looks at what Donald Trump did right in 2016—and what Hillary Clinton did wrong.

By Richard Ades

The Accidental President is worth seeing, but the timing of its theatrical release is less than ideal. Does anyone want to see a documentary that rehashes the 2016 presidential race when we’re still trying to put the 2020 election behind us?

But for those willing to give it a try, James Fletcher’s flick is a lively and surprisingly even-handed history lesson that’s sure to provide nuggets of new understanding. Though it mainly relies on talking heads to examine the past, those heads belong to an eclectic and thoughtful group of journalists, commentators, political operatives, a prominent screenwriter (Aaron Sorkin) and even a cartoonist (Dilbert’s Scott Adams).

Writer/director Fletcher begins his look back with the 2016 primary season, which saw a record number of prominent Republicans vying for the top spot. The sheer volume made it hard for any candidate to stand out—any traditional candidate, that is. While his politically experienced opponents focused on ideas, Trump gained traction by becoming, as former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci puts it, a “human wrecking ball.”

During the GOP debates, Trump targeted other hopefuls with a steady stream of insults and name-calling that kept his face front and center throughout the 24-hour news cycle. In short, the former reality TV star showed he knew how to work the media. While conservatives often claim news outlets have a liberal bias, one interviewee notes that they actually have a “conflict bias.” Thus, the political neophyte was able to garner millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity by creating one juicy kerfuffle after another.

At the same time that he was slaking the media’s thirst for conflict, Trump was stoking the anger many Americans felt over the perception that they’d been left behind by the modern economy. The documentary notes that Sen. Bernie Sanders benefited from some of this same dissatisfaction in his bid for the Democratic nomination, fueling an early lead over Hillary Clinton. It also notes that his fans’ anger was exacerbated when the party’s establishment was suspected of using “super delegates” to give Clinton an unfair advantage in the race.  

Time correspondent Molly Ball is one of several political observers featured in The Accidental President.

Speaking of Clinton, her diehard supporters probably won’t appreciate the section of the film that focuses on what she did wrong after becoming the Democratic candidate. Despite being vastly more qualified than Trump, she hobbled herself by avoiding the press and mostly ignoring the so-called “blue wall” states where Trump ultimately carved out slim leads. (One of them, Wisconsin, was snubbed altogether.) She also made verbal gaffes such as referring to Trump supporters as “deplorables,” thus alienating voters who felt looked down upon by the “coastal elite.”

Of course, Clinton also was handicapped by FBI director James Comey and his controversial decision to raise the issue of her emails yet again during the campaign’s final days. On the other hand, as Time political correspondent Molly Ball suggests, Clinton should have been so far ahead of her inexperienced opponent by that point that such a setback wouldn’t have mattered. In the end, she won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College, which was the only vote that mattered.

The Accidental President also brings up other issues that played a role in 2016 and still bear consideration today: Why were Twitter and Trump such a perfect match? Do emotions beat out ideas on the campaign trail? And how was Trump able to weather the “October surprise” that was the Entertainment Tonight tape?

The 2016 race may be long over and Donald Trump may be out of office, but the forces that led to his surprising victory will continue to play a role in politics because they obviously worked. That makes The Accidental President a useful history lesson.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

The Accidental President (no MPAA rating) is available through VOD outlets and will screen in limited U.S. theaters beginning June 21. It will soon be available on Starz.

United by music, divided by ideology

Brothers Ilmar Gavilan (left) and Aldo Lopez-Gavilan play together after years of separation in Los Hermanos. (Photo by Melissa Bunni Elian)

By Richard Ades

Music. Politics. Brotherly love. These three forces collide in Los Hermanos (The Brothers), a bittersweet documentary about siblings separated by 90 miles of ocean and 50 years of economic policy.

Ilmar Gavilan and younger brother Aldo Lopez-Gavilan were born into a musical Cuban family. As boys, both were encouraged to develop the talents they so obviously inherited from their parents, but rather than bringing them together, this shared interest soon tore them apart.

Aldo, a budding pianist and composer, was only 8 when 14-year-old Ilmar set off to Moscow to hone his skills as a violinist. Eventually settling in the United States (the documentary doesn’t explain how this came about), Ilmar was free to perform with just about anyone except the brother he left back in Cuba. Due to U.S. trade embargoes and travel restrictions against the communist society, collaborations between the two were nearly impossible.

The documentary, fluidly directed by Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider, draws a stark contrast between the brothers’ lifestyles. While Ilmar plays and tours with a chamber group called the Harlem Quartet, Aldo deals with the limitations of making music in a poor and isolated country. In all of Cuba, we learn, there are only two or three performance spaces with decent pianos. And when Aldo does play in a concert, he often is responsible for prep work that anywhere else would be handled by backstage technicians.

One thing is clear. Despite the differences in their daily lives, the brothers are alike in their devotion to their chosen art form. Ilmar is a gifted violinist, while Aldo’s keyboard virtuosity, particularly when he’s playing one of his own rhythmically complex pieces at breakneck speed, marks him as a musical genius.

For this reason, as well as their family ties, the brothers desperately want to play and record an album together. When Ilmar succeeds in visiting his homeland for the first time in years, it looks like this just might happen. But it’s not until Barack Obama becomes president and relaxes trade and travel restrictions against the island that they’re completely free to share their talents.

They even arrange a joint tour of American concert halls, as documented in the film’s most joyful moments. However, joy turns to dread when then-presidential candidate Donald Trump begins appearing on TV screens and threatens to reverse Obama’s conciliatory policies toward Cuba.

As concerned as Los Hermanos is with politics and brotherhood, it’s really the music that ties the film together and constitutes its greatest strength. Specifically, it’s the music of Aldo, which makes up the bulk of what we hear throughout. Whether fast, jazzy and avant-garde or slow, simple and heartfelt, it never fails to impress and delight.

It’s the music, if one reads between the lines, that also makes the film’s most salient political point. We realize that the U.S., by cutting itself off from that island to the south, is not only depriving two brothers of each other’s company—it’s also depriving us of the enjoyment we could be getting from extraordinary Cuban talents like Aldo Lopez Gavilan.  

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Los Hermanos will be available in theaters and via virtual screenings beginning May 14. For ticket information, visit hermanosbrothersfilm.info/screenings.

The uphill battle to safeguard federal lands

Local activists gather in Salt Lake City to protest the Trump administration’s boundary reductions to the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. (Photo by Andrew Burr)

By Richard Ades

As if the upcoming presidential election weren’t momentous enough, a new documentary offers evidence that American’s public lands are on the line.

David Byars’s Public Trust is a beautifully photographed homage to the 640 million acres of wilderness that belong to all of us, as well as a concise history of the struggle to keep them that way. That history is brought up to date with an account of the Trump administration’s moves to exploit some of the most pristine and vital areas for commercial development.

Though a wide spectrum of activists, ranchers, government officials and others appear during the film’s 98 minutes, the face that’s seen most often belongs to journalist Hal Herring. Herring says he spent his youth hunting and fishing in northern Alabama, but he later traded in his shotgun for a computer so he could warn people about forces that sought to turn federal lands into money-making opportunities.

Byars makes the case that protecting and even extending public lands was a bipartisan issue for much of the 20th century, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Even in the 21st century, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both added new protected areas by declaring them “national monuments.”

When Donald J. Trump took office, however, he made it clear that his sympathies lay elsewhere. Not only have his secretaries of the interior been men with multiple links to the energy industry, but he’s showed no compunction about overturning protective measures instituted by his predecessors.

Spencer Shaver and Hal Herring paddle through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. (Photo by Jim Hurst)

The documentary gives three endangered areas special attention. One is Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, which attract canoers and other nature-lovers to the state and create thousands of local jobs. Another is the Bears Ears area of Utah, considered sacred by Native Americans. Finally, there’s the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, home to the caribou on which the Gwich’in people rely for their survival.

Each of these areas has its defenders, one of the most devoted being Bernadette Demientieff of the Gwich’in Nation. She and other activists are shown gathering support and debating critics in attempts to fight off intrusions by would-be exploiters with deep pockets. But their efforts begin to seem futile once the Trump administration puts its finger on the scales.

Educational, inspiring and, most of all, troubling, Public Trust is ultimately a call to arms against those who seek to steal our national heritage for the sake of a quick profit.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Public Trust (no MPAA rating) is available via YouTube beginning Sept. 25, with more outlets to be added at a later date.

Presidential rom-com mixes satire with sex and drug jokes

Long Shot
Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) helps Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) loosen up in a scene from Long Shot.

By Richard Ades

The two main criteria for judging a romantic comedy are, naturally: (1) Is it romantic? And (2) is it funny?

In the case of Long Shot, the answer to both questions is “sometimes.”

Directed by Jonathan Levine (Snatched), the rom-com concocts a potentially intriguing matchup. On the one side is Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), who begins planning a presidential run after learning the current commander-in-chief (Bob Odenkirk) won’t seek a second term. On the other side is Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), a liberal journalist who leaves his job when his publication is sold to a conservative media conglomerate. When the two meet at a party and Charlotte realizes they were childhood neighbors, she impulsively hires Fred as a speechwriter.

On the surface, the glamorous, powerful Charlotte and the scruffy, laid-back Fred are a typical rom-com odd couple. Beneath the surface, however, there’s an actual connection. Years ago, 13-year-old Fred secretly had a crush on 16-year-old Charlotte, who served as his babysitter when she wasn’t running to be their school’s student-body president.

Now that they’ve been thrown together as adults, it’s obvious that Fred still has a crush on Charlotte, but he’s too aware of the difference in their positions to let on. Instead, he starts plying her for information about herself, explaining that a speechwriter needs to know his subject. Apparently charmed by his interest, Charlotte is happy to oblige. Even if you’re not a rom-com fan, you’ll have no trouble figuring out where this is headed.

Is Charlotte and Fred’s roundabout courtship romantic? Well, it may be for some, but not for me. It just seems too contrived and predictable, especially with sappy music telegraphing every development.

Well, is the film at least funny? Parts of it are, especially the early slapstick scenes featured in the commercials. Whether later scenes tickle your funny bone depends on your affinity for R-rated gags involving sex and drugs. They may produce a few reflexive chuckles, but they’re not nearly as satisfying as humor that grows organically out of characters and situations.

Appropriately for a film coming out in 2019, Long Shot also takes a stab at political satire, though its efforts are pretty tame compared to what’s aired on late-night TV. Like Donald Trump, Odenkirk’s President Chambers earned his fame on television (as an actor rather than a reality star). But unlike Trump, he has no political ambition and is simply using the presidency as a steppingstone to his actual career goal of breaking into the movies.

Screenwriters Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah likewise take aim at Trump’s favorite show, Fox & Friends, with a clone that lambastes liberals and feminists and is part of a network run by the Stephen Bannon-like Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis). To make sure the flick doesn’t alienate conservative viewers too much, though, their script aims other barbs at the liberal Fred, who is shamed for not knowing that his black best friend (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a Republican—a Republican whose political philosophy is along the lines of “Believe in yourself.” Edgy!

Perhaps the movie makes the strongest political statements about the special challenges faced by a woman like Charlotte who’s trying to break through the ultimate glass ceiling. But it may go too far when it has Fred apologize for not realizing that such challenges sometimes force her to sacrifice her ideals. That’s probably not a message that real-life women candidates would appreciate.

Long Shot does benefit from two likable star turns. Theron adds enough humanity to the regal Charlotte to prevent her from becoming an ice queen, while Rogen plays the chemically adventurous Fred as an extension of his usual persona. It’s just too bad the script didn’t find more interesting ways for these two likable people to interact.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Long Shot (rated R) opened May 3 at theaters nationwide.