Anatomy of a Tragedy
'11/8/16,' a new Netflix documentary, explores the 2016 presidential vote on the election day that bent the arc of America’s cultural and demographic destiny.
“It’s never been so personal,” says Hana Barkowitz, an infectiously upbeat member of the Kent State College Democrats, in a frank assessment of the waging of the war of the 2016 presidential campaign, and what the outcome would mean to her on that night, one year ago today.
In the new documentary 11/8/16, now streaming on Netflix, the United States of America is on display as a true mosaic, a pointillist canvas whose diversity leads to all kinds of surprises, especially the one handed to the largely gob-smacked nation on Nov. 8, 2016, when, against all odds and most predictions, Donald Trump, billionaire reality TV action figure and walking advertisement for himself, attained the presidency of the United States.
The film is the chronicle of one day in the life of America, and how events affected 15 different people, widely dispersed physically and culturally, on the election day that bent the arc of America’s cultural and demographic destiny. If the country changed last year, this is the veritable tick-tock of that happening.
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You couldn’t ask for much more of a representative survey of the nation: A Sikh cab driver in New York City; a coal miner in West Virginia; an exonerated man in Alabama, voting for the first time in 30 years; a community organizer Dreamer in San Jose, Calif., once detained by the feds for three months; a combat veteran in Miami; a small-business owner in Massachusetts; a real-estate investor and recovering political cynic in Chicago; an assistant managing editor at the Los Angeles Times.
The brilliance of the piece is the often-painful honesty of the American citizens whose lives and political views are examined here. Their observations and those of others, what they experience on Election Night 2016, reflect the vast unease and uncertainty the country’s still going through. The doc’s hour and 45 minutes explore the anatomy of a national sadness.
Joe Concra, a smugly left-wing artist and activist in Kingston, N.Y., dismisses the whole election process itself. But he's married to Denise Orzo, a progressive who harbors deep misgivings even before the results are in. On the eve of the election outcome, Orzo speaks by phone to her father, a man who enlightens her about the sausage-making that is American democracy — and why the outcome to come shouldn’t have been unexpected.
“Democracy,” her father says, ”is a boiling cauldron of push-and-pull struggle. You can’t get three people to agree on where to go for dinner, less 300 million people agree on what they believe in.”
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Even as defeat was staring them in the face, some Clinton supporters came to grips with things in an unusually rational manner given the circumstances. Vetress Boyce, who voted for Clinton, could still be disarmingly frank about Clinton and the shortcomings of a Democratic Party with a history of short-changing its minority voters.
As the final results come in, we’re witness to the reactions of members of the Latinx community, especially some of the Dreamers, young people brought to these shores as children and babes in arms. The looming Trump presidency awakens fear in them, some to the point of tears. But they also manage a certain sang-froid about it all, a grace under fire and a grasp of what’s at stake, and what’s to come, in the months ahead.
We also watch Barkowitz in a moving moment, having a full emotional meltdown as it’s clear her months of support, hard work, and passion for the Clinton campaign will come to nothing.
Some of the touches here are accidentally revelatory. As the final election results are decided, editors at the Times come up with alternate front page designs, holding out hope of avoiding the inevitable ... and then, their work done, retreating to that old journalistic sanctuary: a well-stocked bar locked away in a newsroom desk.
And Jesús Ruiz, the Dreamer and community organizer from San Jose, nervously paces outside a community center just after the outcome was finally known, placing both hands behind his head as he walks, a position of movable contemplation, of a man trying hard to contain combustible emotions... and also the tragically unconscious but unmistakable posture of someone surrendering to a dominating force.
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Created and produced by Jeff Deutchman, 11/8/16 is a single documentary with 18 parents. No fewer than 18 directors participated on the project, whose massive cross-country logistics must have been a daunting challenge. Deutchman and his editors are up to what’s required, ably sprinting from coast to coast. But there’s no auteurist attitude here, no playing favorites with which director’s work gets the most screen time. What emerges is a balanced, demographically meaningful portrait of a nation blindsided by an event few had predicted and none could have prevented.
For some, especially Trump supporters, the surprise of Election Night has preceded other real-world surprises they didn’t see coming after Trump the candidate took office. Example: Eric Hayhurst, the West Virginia coal miner, voted for Trump, who signed an executive order in March rolling back Obama-era carbon-emission control policies thought to have damaged the coal industry.
Since last November, some in Big Coal have said Trump’s order changes nothing, and that the industry is doomed to be a victim of market forces, not regulation. Coal mining jobs, the CEO of coal producer Murray Energy said, are gone and “he can’t bring them back.”
“What a strange country,” Concra observes. And he’s right: We have only to look at the results from Election Night 2017 — a triumphant night for Democrats — to see how fickle the American electorate can be. 11/8/16 is a brilliantly rendered snapshot of one moment when our political capriciousness started to come back to haunt us... the event that began the process, the vast unraveling we’re living with today.