Whether you view our current POTUS as “making America great again” or as a potentially mortal wound to democracy itself, few would disagree that his surprise election over Hillary Clinton was one of those turning points that will linger long in the history books. Just in time for the one-year anniversary of the event — and just as the Mueller investigation, which might well bring the still-new administration down, kicks into gear — comes “11/8/16,” producer Jeff Deutchman’s mosaic view of ordinary Americans on that fateful day last year. He commissioned video crews in fourteen different locations nationwide to record disparate citizens’ experiences of what even most stalwart Trump supporters considered a remarkable upset.
It’s a fine, time-capsule-ready concept. Yet the surprise of this decently assembled yet underwhelming documentary is that it ekes so little drama out of a moment that could scarcely have been more packed with it. In the process, it provides scant insight into a U.S. presidency that’s been stormier than any in modern memory. It’s a curiously low-key filmic footnote to an unhinged political era.
The Trump backers here are Average Joes: A Massachusetts small businessman and West Virginia coal miner (reviving the coal industry has indeed been one campaign promise Trump has endeavored to keep) who each trust their guy will improve their personal finances, plus an Army vet with PTSD. In line with much of the street-level discourse last year, they mostly complain of “not liking” or “distrusting” Clinton, with few specific critiques, while excusing Trump’s admitted misogynistic and racist rhetoric as forgivable faults he can clean up in the future. They’re hopeful, but none seem very confident of his victory.
By contrast, some of the Clinton supporters here are insiders, including the campaign’s director of video and the chief of Kent State’s campus Democratic club; both are exhilarated by the prospect of a woman POTUS at last. There’s also a Philadelphia union leader and an artist couple in upstate New York. With all advance polls suggesting things will go Clinton’s way, it takes many long, denial-filled hours for these folks to grasp it hasn’t. Also included are a smattering of media workers who seem equally surprised, even as they maintain a professional neutrality — in particular, a Los Angeles Times political editor and a Philadelphia radio journalist.
Offering further diversity is a Mormon housewife canvassing for “anti-Trump Republican” Evan McMullin, who ran as an independent. (Supporters of the more popular Libertarian and Green Party candidates are not represented here.) Even farther uncoupled from the political process are a homeless Hawaii couple who live on the beach. They vaguely suspect Trump might be the worse option, but they’re so far off-grid they don’t believe politics effect them at all.
A number of people here talk about how disenfranchised they feel from the entire system. Perhaps the most interesting voices in that respect are those who have concrete reasons for feeling marginalized: notably a middle-aged African-American man voting for the first time after being exonerated for murders that kept him on death row for 30 years; Spanish-speaking Dreamers terrified their families may soon be broken up by forced deportation; and a Sikh cabbie in New York City experiencing escalating public harassment because abusive louts assume his turban means he’s Muslim.
Such stories offer compelling if fleeting human interest that personalizes current hot-button political issues. But too much of “11/8/16” feels superficial and unmemorable, despite the range of talents of the filmmakers and the interviewee demographics. In short, we don’t sense enough of the anger in the air, the acute divisiveness that made the most recent presidential campaign the ugliest in decades, if not all time. Things are mentioned, but almost never viscerally felt, except perhaps from the soldier who admits he’s struggled with psychological stability since leaving the service. With no discernible “alt-righters” among its subjects, you’d have no clue from what’s presented that neo-Nazis and white supremacists would soon be marching openly on U.S. streets, emboldened by a POTUS they view as their ally.
Though smoothly intercut by editors Jon Lefkovitz and Martha Shane, these strands don’t build much tension or excitement even as the shorter “Morning” and “Afternoon” sections give way to an “Evening” in which some shocked tears are finally shed. But those don’t carry a great deal of impact, either. Indeed, “11/8/16” might be more effective if paired with Deutchman’s prior, near-identical “11/4/08” (2010), which took the pulse of another highly dramatic election day, and incorporated some international viewpoints.
But neither movie really captures the roiling emotions or complex issues of two unforgettable days in American life. The lack of musical scoring, a bit of Beethoven aside, further underlines a well-intentioned effort’s stubborn refusal or inability to tease out the real-life intensity of its subject matter.