In American politics, what was once referred to as a “24-hour news cycle” is now more of a shapeless, time-bending hell blob wherein journalists lurch from one banal horror to the next. Headlines that ought to upend the national conversation, like those about an adversarial superpower reportedly offering bounties on U.S. soldiers’ heads, trend briefly on Twitter, then are forgotten; stories that were a waste of air to begin with, on the other hand, never seem to never go away. Time is nebulous now, so maybe CNN Films should be forgiven for thinking January 2020 and the Democratic presidential caucuses and primaries are distant enough in the electorate’s consciousness that they would benefit from sober examination today from the calmer, higher ground of hindsight in On The Trail: Inside The 2020 Primaries.
Unappetizing as that analysis may feel today, fewer than 100 days out from the general presidential election, those races probably do warrant it. But a holistic view of the Democratic Party’s path from the largest and most diverse candidate pool (relatively speaking) in history to presumptive nominee Joe Biden isn’t what this mostly vapid travelogue is about. Nor is it about a multi-billion dollar legacy media empire reconsidering its mission and practices in response to massive social and technological transformations. Instead, this self-described “cinéma vérité” HBO Max original feature offers subscribers a “ride-a-long” with CNN’s election reporters through Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, where windbreaker-donned viewers may consider timely questions like, “How well do you need to do in Iowa?” and “Give us a sense of crowd [size.]”
“There is nothing like the rush of covering a presidential campaign,” says chief political correspondent Dana Bash in voiceover against a percussion soundtrack. Aesthetically, On The Trail shares a glossy, in-the-thick-of-it style with Showtime’s awfully titled though substantively decent The Circus: Inside The Greatest Political Show On Earth. On The Trail seems to be a stitched-together Frankenstein-hybrid of The Circus’ news summary model (which airs weekly and therefore makes sense) and its own human interest profile feature, here spotlighting the day-to-day operations of CNN’s women reporters.
The trouble is that the film doesn’t serve either of its two aims very deeply. As an analysis of the 2020 primary, CNN Films presents a barrage of chyrons and crowd shots and Trump rally T-shirt tents and Wolf Blitzer breaking news updates in lieu of a coherent narrative or any new observations about the races. Take, for instance, the Iowa caucus counting shitshow: On The Trail treats an initial two-hour results announcement delay as a pulse-raising dramatic beat, but then doesn’t bother to follow up on any of the details that were ostensibly learned in the proceeding weeks. The “unprecedented access” HBO Max advertises here isn’t of the candidates or the political process, like in Knock Down The House or Mitt or Weiner or Hillary, but of CNN’s own correspondents—and what On The Trail chooses to do with its employee spotlights is of dubious value.
“I stalk presidential candidates for a living,” says video producer Daniella Diaz, an imbed assigned to Elizabeth Warren. She then sprints off with a camera in a frantic rush to squeeze into a packed scrum to record one of three stump speeches that day. Later outside, Diaz relishes a triumphant moment as Warren’s van drives away: “I got a shot of her through the window!” Other featured millennial-aged imbeds—more often than not seen zipping luggage or hauling equipment or exhaustively typing—include Annie Grayer with the Bernie Sanders campaign, Kaitlan Collins covering the White House, and video producer Jasmine Wright working with senior correspondent Kyung Lah to cover Amy Klobuchar. Wright’s talking head segments are by far the most insightful and substantive of the documentary’s 93 minutes, and they come close to giving On The Trail some kind of purpose. Working late in a hotel room one night, Wright, a member of the National Association Of Black Journalists, vents frustration about how the primary calendar’s early focus on white majority states discourages decision makers at networks from covering issues important to Black and brown communities during critical campaign months. “I think what the media does wrong is not creating space for these conversations earlier, and understanding the issues that are really affecting Black people.” It’s the only scene in which the word “traffic” is used, and it gently hints at the financial disincentives companies like CNN have from using anything besides clicks and total views to guide its coverage priorities—and who that system fails to serve.
It’s almost jarring how thoughtful and out of sync that scene is with the rest of On The Trail, particularly when compared to the time it spends with its veteran correspondents. In an early scene shot in her gorgeous Los Angeles kitchen, Lah discusses the sacrifice her family makes in her absence on the road. It’s understandable—at any level of seniority, time away from loved ones is hard and shouldn’t be trivialized. But the newsworthiness and stakes of that sacrifice just feels like such a sidebar compared not only to the global pandemic and economic crisis creeping in on the film’s margins (which get only the tiniest coda at the very end), but the other elephants in the room for women who work in political journalism in 2020. It’s strange that a documentary specifically highlighting the talents and challenges of reporters who are women doesn’t touch at all on the Trump White House’s uniquely shitty treatment of female journalists, or the broader movement to expose and reject normalized sexual harassment in the industry. Instead, On The Trail stakes its emotional climax on the end-of-summer-camp sense of finality reporters experience when, after two years of constant coverage, “their” candidate suspends their campaign. The whole project is frustratingly indicative of CNN’s political coverage at large, which—despite having the resources and hired talent to do better—manages to point its camera in the correct direction and still miss the big story entirely.