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TV Review: Frontline’s ‘The Choice’ Offers Welcome Perspective to Election 2016

In the deluge of information that prefigured Monday night’s debate came an interesting statistic from polling conducted by Monmouth University: While three-quarters of likely voters intended to watch the debate, 87% of those likely voters had already made up their minds about who they were voting for. In a tight election, 13% of likely voters is nothing to sneeze at. But in an election cycle that lasts far longer than the “traditional” two months of Labor Day to Election Day — and in an election where the two candidates, and their visions of a future America, could hardly be more different — if anything, it’s surprising just how many people have yet to make up their minds.

In the attempt to find and speak to the undecided voter — and in an attempt to cut through the noise and chaos of the election media cycle, which has alighted on and then disposed of controversies involving Skittles, plagiarized speeches, Russian hackers, and normal-or-abnormal levels of coughing — “Frontline” will tonight premiere its fourth “The Choice,” a two-hour election-season special that presents each candidate’s life and views with a combination of investigation and interviews.

It’s a remarkably dense and succinct history of each candidate’s rise to the nomination. “The Choice 2016” isn’t exactly stylish or glitzy, but that’s one of the reasons it works so well. Donald Trump has capitalized on the non-linear narrative of multiple news networks and hundreds of thousands of politically oriented tweets in order to advance falsehoods and hyperbole as a political platform. Hillary Clinton is dogged by an opaque past mired in the bureaucracy of past administrations. Both candidates’ stories are streamlined and laid bare, free of the noise around them, in “The Choice.”

Last night’s first presidential debate filmed both candidates for the entire 90 minutes, using a split-screen to get close-ups of each candidates’ facial expressions. “The Choice” also imposes a structure of direct comparison on these two candidates, by laying out both candidates’ histories side-by-side for frank examination. Everything in the documentary is already a matter of public record, but in this maelstrom of chatter, it’s easy to lose details. “The Choice” therefore invests in framing — juxtaposing, over the two-hour story, each candidate’s emergence as a presidential candidate from vastly different childhoods and professional careers before the events of the last few years.

“The Choice” has the solemnity and perspective-zooming on old photos that feels familiarly de rigeur for a PBS documentary of any stripe. Narrator Will Lyman has the gravelly bass voice that lends immediate solemnity to any narrative, and at first it’s almost funny — “The Choice” is treating these candidates as if this were long-lost history. But the full documentary treatment also proves to be incredibly clarifying. Unlike the worst impulses of cable news or reality television, “Frontline” is not particularly interested in anything salacious except as it pertains specifically to how these candidates became who they currently are. As a result, “The Choice” discovers and isolates crucial moments — many of which were televised. The documentary replays, and contextualizes, such significant moments as Clinton’s interview with Matt Lauer that denied the Monica Lewinsky allegations as part of a “right-wing conspiracy,” or Donald Trump’s multiple bankruptcies that he spun to the press, at a book-signing event, as a success.

NPR’s Rachel Martin observed earlier this month, “Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the two most unpopular presidential candidates in modern history. So in many ways, this year’s election has become a question of character.” “The Choice” is almost designed to respond to this statement, to offer character studies of each candidate. The documentary makes it possible to ignore the omnipresent background noise of this election. And unlike the media circus around the elections, “The Choice” will air commercial-free. In an era saturated by social media spats and a reality television candidate, perhaps the only antidote is the most staid of all television products, the commercial-free public-access special. “The Choice” is an oasis in the midst of this election cycle, and one that will hopefully help that 13% of undecided voters make their final decisions.

Popular on Variety

TV Review: Frontline's 'The Choice' Offers Welcome Perspective to Election 2016

Documentary special. PBS (check local listings), Tues. Sept. 27, 9 p.m. 120 min.

Production: Executive producer, Raney Aronson-Rath

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