The 2020 election has strangely felt both more and less present a part of life than it’d have seemed likely on January 1: It’s more with us because of the heightened tensions stoked by our president, with his supporters and detractors feeling a sense of urgency about how they’ll vote, and it’s less with us because of everything else. It can be easy to forget this is an election year when thinking about all the other things that make 2020 itself — a somewhat startling way in which COVID-19, the economic devastation it has wrought, and a simultaneous awakening around racial justice have worked in tandem to break TV news’s addiction to the endless campaign.
Which makes “On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries,” HBO Max’s new documentary feature about embedded journalists reporting on the events of past months, feel something other than urgent at this moment, because it doesn’t feel of this moment at all. It’s not that the story it tells — of women reporters doing their best to balance it all against a political backdrop that has tended to punish women candidates — isn’t interesting on its face, or told well. It’s just that political realities have shifted such that this story seems to be about a different election than the one happening in November.
What the film — which is made by CNN Films and focuses on journalists from CNN, HBO Max’s corporate partner — does well is depict the difficulty of the embed’s job, from logistical to philosophical. We get a crystalline sense of just how wearying it is to follow candidates from place to place, to hear a remarkably similar stump speech repeatedly and to attempt to wring it for news value. Daniella Diaz, a producer embedded with the Elizabeth Warren campaign, says that she attends three events a day, a mind-numbing prospect no matter which candidate is speaking. What’s difficult, too, is the goal — perhaps a false one — of “objectivity” or not allowing one’s own experience to enter into one’s mind while working. Diaz is the daughter of Mexican immigrants; elsewhere, we meet Jasmine Wright, a Black woman who notes, while covering Amy Klobuchar, “Of course the only Black embed at CNN would get the candidate with no Black support. Which is probably not a benefit for them, because I will notice.”
Wright laughs ruefully as she says this, but her point is well-taken, doubly — both that Klobuchar had little Black support, which is part of why she lost, and that CNN has in her eyes little diversity among its reporting talent, which is not likely to yield such direct consequences. More on this topic from Wright would have been welcome, but the CNN-produced film doesn’t go there.
These are issues that will outlast the moment in which “On the Trail” was filmed. But the effective end of that trail — with the winner of the Democratic Party’s primary running his campaign without leaving the state of Delaware — does mean that they were voiced in a context that is already gone. Obviously things can be learned from the very recent past, but “On the Trail” feels, like many works forged in the heat of a campaign, as though it were designed to comment on a present that slipped away from it. Even had COVID-19 never happened, this film may live on HBO Max for years to come; the times when reporters speak a bit more globally about their work are the ones that feel likeliest to matter in the future, but those are somewhat sparser than would be ideal.
Frequent montages of news events from only, say, six or so months ago, meant to situate us within our protagonists’ reality and to remind us of what exactly happened at when feel, instead, like jarring and unpleasant reminders of a campaign that is now effectively over. (That’s not to say that the election has been won or lost by either side, but simply that the portion of 2020 involving in-person electioneering by candidates seems concluded.) They tie the film relentlessly back into whatever news cycle is happening in its protagonists’ present, rather than allowing them to consistently address wider-ranging concerns. It’s easy to care about the women in “On the Trail,” and the issues they face. But the film around them doesn’t feel built to last — or to exist in a moment beyond the one for which it was intended, one in which a summer has been spent watching two candidates battle it out as a national spectacle and pastime. That our time has been spent in other ways doesn’t make race and gender among journalists less important. But it suggests there might have been more timeless ways to address them.