Sundance Film Festival 2017

Trump documentary examines how the press got the election so wrong

Trump documentary examines how the press got the election so wrong

Donald Trump hat
The documentary airs Friday, February 3. Photo via

Donald Trump was a major presence at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time was screened for 200 members of the press in a tent, while a ferocious blizzard caused water to drip from a leaky ceiling. Despite the less than ideal conditions, no one left.

The documentary, created by John Heilemann, who has covered every election since 1992; Mark Halperin; and former Austin political operative Mark McKinnon (creators of Showtime’s The Circus), analyzes the 2016 election from the vantage point of hindsight and as a result offers an outside-the-bubble perspective of how nearly everyone in the media got the bizarre and unprecedented presidential election so wrong. It traces Trump’s entry into the race, his destruction of each Republican contender, and culminates in his surprise election victory. 

Heilemann, in the Q&A session following the film, acknowledged that Sundance booked the film when it was just an idea and that his team had worked around the clock since the election and had only finished editing the film that week. 

The highly entertaining documentary focuses on the campaign from the press’ perspective, including many of the sound bites already seen on TV.  Political junkies expecting insight from his advisers will be disappointed — the filmmakers let the story unfold through replays of his press conferences, the debates, and several short interviews from the Trump private jet — always with a TV on in the background.

On one you can catch a glimpse of Trump from a distance talking animatedly and affectionately with Melania Trump. On another, an interviewer asks Trump if he gets coached on what to say and he says no, he doesn’t need that. He speaks from his heart. Indeed he does and the film shows that while many supporters don't like all he says, they like that he is unscripted. 

This documentary has some laugh-out-loud parts, perhaps because truth can sometimes provide the best humor. Does anyone remember in 2015, when then-President Obama was asked if he could imagine Trump as president and he replied, “yes, in a Saturday Night Live skit”? Similarly Trump’s comments about his ... manhood, when replayed, had many in the audience chortling. If you just watched those snippets, you could see how the election was so shocking. 

Yet, through the lens of hindsight, the spectacle of the Trump plane pulling up to a hangar full of supporters, the excitement of the crowds, and the politically incorrect and supremely confident Trump provided a moment of “how did we all miss this.”

The film chronicles election night at Hillary Clinton’s extravagantly outfitted Jacob Javits Center election party that included a glass ceiling and a stage in the shape of the United States. One of the first signs that all was not going well was NBC's Andrea Mitchell telling the filmmakers that she is getting unsettling reports from Michigan. The film shows the shock and dismay of the filmmakers: “We were wrong and we need to figure out why.”

Concluding the Q&A, Heilemann was asked by someone who was tactfully critical of the press (this is Sundance after all — not many openly Trump supporters here), asking what happened to reporter objectivity. He replied that everyone agrees the press is “fucked up” but they disagree on why.

Some critics have taken the filmmakers to task for not trying to destroy Trump. Heilemann commented, “I think that it is incumbent on journalists not to become dispassionate because that’s phony. I think you should be passionate for the things that matter which are things like truth and accountability. We should try to represent the interests of the country and to hold people in power accountable and try to stay focused on what is true and which is false."

Even those who didn’t vote for Trump will find this documentary interesting, entertaining, and instructional for future campaigns —even though, in the documentary, Bernie Sanders warns that an election should not be sport or a soap opera. The documentary will be screened on Showtime on Friday, February 3.