Who is America?: ‘American Chaos’ tries to answer and listen

Slated for release on Sept. 14, James Stern’s “American Chaos” explores contemporary American politics. (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

The pronoun “they” dates back to the 16th century: It can be used in the third person plural, the third person plural singular or  as a mode of self-identification.

The notion of an opposing “they” shapes much of James D. Stern’s new documentary, “American Chaos,” which had a screening this Wednesday at the Ray Stark Family Theatre.

The film seeks to explore the increasingly large chasm between “us” and “them” that has emerged amid the turbulent climate of American politics. Through the film, Stern tries to understand what drove political support for a man who appeared, to Stern, cosmically unprepared for the presidency — then-candidate Donald Trump.

The film, distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, will be officially released in L.A. on Sept. 14, nearly two years after the 2016 election and two months before the 2018 midterms.

Stern, the founder, chairman and chief executive officer of Endgame Entertainment, set out on the journey that became “American Chaos” six months prior to the 2016 presidential election.

“I became more and more obsessed in 2016 with finding out ‘who’ the ‘they’ was. Who was fervently supporting Trump, who was such a radical departure from past elected presidents?” Stern wrote in his director’s statement. “I felt I had to go on the road and meet his supporters for myself, listen to them and in doing so, perhaps gain an appreciation for the truth under the surface.”

While two years of impassioned post-election analysis have made Stern’s “truth under the surface” significantly less groundbreaking than its initial 2016 uncovering, the guiding mission behind “American Chaos” is a critical analysis of our contemporary political rhetoric: Who are “they?” And what does that make “us?”

Stern begins answering this question in Florida, where Mar-a-Lago is “not as gold plated” as he expected and a former vice mayor of a mid-sized city an hour away compares the America of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan to that of 1957.  From there, Stern zig-zags around the country, making stops in Ohio, West Virginia and Arizona before returning to Florida for election night. Along the way, he interviews coal miners, border patrol officers, ranchers and one West Virginia man who suggests the death penalty for then-candidate Hillary Clinton.

Some of the interviews are comic and some are polarizing; some humanizing and others politically insightful. Walking outside of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, however, Stern makes an observation that speaks for anyone who doesn’t identify as white or male: “It really feels like a white guy’s world, man.”

Indeed, some of the most revealing scenes in “American Chaos” stem from this subtle, perhaps even accidental, commentary on the liberal deficit in predicting Trump’s rise. At an L.A. viewing party of Trump and Clinton’s second debate depicted in the middle of the documentary, one party guest featured in the scene feebly commented: “She did fine.”

Stern’s documentary serves as a delayed response as to why Clinton ultimately didn’t.

In a Q&A session following the screening, Stern clarified some points of contention, particularly among fellow blue-state dwelling Democrats who, Stern said, questioned his choice to give a platform to discordant Trump-supporting voices.

“This is a culture war. It’s not about politics. It’s about culture,” Stern said.

He called for an increased willingness to listen across party and ideological lines, in turn criticizing a polarized media landscape.

“We’re able to dissect and only read the news that aligns with our viewpoints,” Stern said.

His film serves as a healthy dose of discord.

“In a documentary, you don’t know what you’re going to find,” Stern said. “You just keep going, one foot after another.”