With all due respect to the filmmakers behind it and the varied Americans captured in it, now feels like a terrible time for 11/8/16. Not even a year after Donald Trump was elected—and especially given the tumultuousness of that year—it’s impossible to look at the documentary with any sort of emotional detachment, regardless of your own politics. Perhaps when history has had its way with this era, it will be enlightening to re-experience U.S. presidential election night, 2016. But all 11/8/16 does from this near distance is confirm a recent memory and reinforce some safe assumptions.
In 50 years, it’ll provide a nice snapshot. Right now, watching it feels like standing in a house that’s going up in flames and wondering to yourself, “How did this happen? Did I leave the stove on? Maybe it was an electrical short…” There are better things to do one year later than reflect, when crises seem to pop up daily.
The film—produced and created by Jeff Deutchman, along with a team of 18 directors capturing footage—doesn’t even really attempt to offer an explanation for Trump’s election, which is just as well considering that that’s well-worn territory at this point. Instead, it follows more than a dozen people of various backgrounds through that historic day, offering few surprises or insights. A black man who served 30 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit believes that Trump has energized a racist voting base. A Latino family is afraid that a Trump election will mean the threat of deportation, no matter what their status. A white couple in Massachusetts who might graciously be called “low-information voters” argue with each other about Trump’s suitability for office, neither armed with a single fact, but with a vague fear of Muslims. (After saying something vaguely racist, the man says, “I don’t have anything against Muslims. Muhammad Ali was a Muslim.”)
Then there are complete non-players that get screen time in spite of the fact that they contribute either nothing or a historically unimportant footnote: A near-homeless Hawaiian guy is barely aware there’s an election even happening, while a Utah woman politely campaigns for dark horse Mormon candidate Evan McMullin.
And sure, there are some vague feints at something deeper from the voters, like a combat vet with PTSD who likes Trump because the government are “all dicks—and don’t we need a dick to deal with that?” And the film provides a little hubris warning via those on the left who were positive that Hillary Clinton couldn’t be beat. But really, what can anybody who was alive and paying attention less than a year ago learn from a replay of that fateful night? A surface-level examination of everyday Americans reveals only that an impassioned, divisive election took place. Does a Titanic documentary end when the ship is done being built? Will 11/8/16 provide some schadenfreude for Trump supporters and poke at a wound that has never been allowed to heal for those that revile him? Will it change anyone’s mind or bring them closer to understanding the other side? Or is it all just so much covfefe?