Every now and then, a piece of visual storytelling — be it propaganda, or impeachment trial evidence, or the most pious Jeep ad imaginable — reminds us what Roger Ebert wrote so simply and so well. “It’s not what a film is about,” he reflected. “It’s how it is about it.”
The film of the moment is a historical tragedy running 13 minutes. On Tuesday, the historic second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump opened with a mini-documentary chronicling the notorious and ultimately lethal events of Jan. 6 inside and outside the U.S. Capitol.
The images come rushing back. Trump speaks from behind his Plexiglas wall, stating his wishes that we, his people, must “stop the steal.” His words, on the prompter, are just this side of bald incitement to riot, and just slippery enough to avoid turning his many Republican allies against him around impeachment time.
Trump then goads his supporters to do what needs to be done in the wake of a plainly fraudulent election. (That part lacks truth, but delusional millions can dream.) In the impeachment video, footage of some protesters in attendance that day, hoisting Trump signs and American flags and wailing for politicians’ blood, shows a mob subset peeling off and confronting police protecting the Capitol.
Meantime the certification of the election results continues inside the Capitol. Like the baptism scene in “The Godfather,” we’re back and forth, back and forth, in a gripping example of crosscutting or “parallel editing.” The violence reaches a crescendo. The film’s factual, calmly dread-inducing intertitles provide the ticktock of events. Using part of a now-infamous testimonial tribute, Trump, having taped a video of his own after the Jan. 6 carnage, tells the mob that he “loves” them but they should go home now “in peace.”
The impeachment video ends with Trump’s tweet, also from Jan. 6, saying we brought this on ourselves. He is unrepentant and, unlike on Nov. 6, 2020, victorious.
It’s stunningly effective visual evidence, assembled by pros. Much of the footage was taken, by observers of and participants in the Capitol assault, in a spirit of triumph. On Tuesday, the triumph turned to the taste of ashes.
Even Trump’s defense team, headed by the hapless Bruce L. Castor Jr., admired it Tuesday. “I’ll be quite frank with you,” he said, before launching into the dullest legal filibuster since Kevin Costner’s courtroom monologue in “JFK.” We “changed what we were going to do,” because that 13-minute blast of evidence, culled from various cellphone cameras and news sources, was “well done.”
Watching it meant falling under the spell of filmmakers who knew what they were doing. It could’ve gone wrong so many ways. Add a melodramatic musical score, and you’ve gone too far. Mess around with the chronology of events for the sake of a more streamlined narrative, also known as “pulling a Michael Moore,” and suddenly you’re giving your political adversaries all the ammo they need for a motion to dismiss.
As for what got left out of the video … well, it was enough for Newsmax, among other far-right networks who derided the 13-minute film Tuesday night.
On Newsmax, commentator Rob Schmitt of “Rob Schmitt Tonight” teed up a segment titled “MISLEADING AMERICA,” all-caps. By leaving out Trump’s sentence exhorting the protesters to “peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard,” Schmitt argued, the Democrats stacked the deck with their “selective editing.”
Agree or not, we must all agree that all editing of anything is selective. Editing techniques can excite, disturb, lull, set a rhythm consciously or even subconsciously, connect ideas and images in different ways.
We saw that clearly enough with a video shown on Jan. 6, just after Rudy Giuliani pumped up the Trump supporters at the “Save America” rally with talk of “trial by combat.”
At the D.C. Ellipse Park rally that day, a two-minute, free-association propaganda video filled the park’s outdoor screens. America’s evils came fast and furiously, in quick snippets: a homeless freeway encampment. A Jew (Chuck Schumer). Hollywood (liberals, Jews, not enough Trump fans). Trump gazing at rockets in flight. Aircraft carriers on a mission. Joe Biden, mouth agape, just asking for a coup.
It was no less disturbing, and insidious in its implications and menacing aura of conspiracy, than the assassination bureau training video in “The Parallax View.”
If you’ve never seen director Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 thriller, there’s a beautiful new edition out on the Criterion Collection label. A journalist (Warren Beatty) has gone undercover to nail whoever’s behind a string of mysterious political killings. He has gained access to the inner sanctum of the Parallax Corporation.
Seated alone in a private screening room, he sees what we see: a mind-control propaganda film, peppered with trigger words. Love. Mother. Country. Home. Father. Nervously paced, ever-accelerating images tell a story of blurred boundaries and pathology. A steak, rare, in close-up. Piles of coins. The White House. A nude woman in a tub. A Klan rally. Violence as righteousness. Do you have the stuff what it takes to work for the Parallax Corporation?
As Trump’s rally video concluded with looming, scowling tight shots of himself, the effect was something like Big Brother from Orwell’s “1984” in a mashup with “The Parallax View.”
It seems like a year ago, but last Sunday Bruce Springsteen starred in another kind of two-minute propaganda film, this one a car ad disguised as a holy act of healing.
“The middle has been a hard place to get to lately,” we were told. But there’s “a chapel in Kansas,” in the dead center of the 48 states, and as the kazillionaire behind the wheel of his old Jeep steps out of the vehicle, in cowboy boots, words and images of what many believe to be the one true America — grain silos, freight trains, lonesome highways, squinty men searching for “common ground” — roll along, as a quiet guitar tells us this, friends, is where we need to be.
This was an ad designed to bridge the right and the left, its determinedly centrist appeal designed to sell you a Jeep and a handful of the hallowed, elusive middle ground America has lost. I wanted to like it; it seems sincere. But all I could think of watching it was how it felt like a rip-off and a quiet perversion of Springsteen’s 1982 masterwork of a solo album, “Nebraska.” That’s an album of dark skies and societal castoffs, and of America’s recent past, much of its atmosphere (and its title song), according to Springsteen himself, inspired by Terrence Malick’s 1973 “Badlands.”
You wouldn’t sell a lot of Jeeps with “Nebraska.” But as a vignette of Americana and American salesmanship, I wonder if the middling middle approach to forgiving and forgetting and moving on will sell many Jeeps, either. The imagery contained no overt politics (though the voice-over acknowledged all our problems). I wouldn’t even call Trump’s two-minute, pump-it-up propaganda video political, either. It’s lower than that.
Filmmakers, whatever they’re selling, continually attempt to “transcend” politics, because it’s easier to get the people to do your bidding that way. It’s what Leni Reifenstahl said about a certain leader back in 1935, when she was making “The Triumph of the Will.” Hitler “wanted a film,” she later wrote, “which would move, appeal to, impress an audience which was not necessarily interested in politics.” Watching the 13-minute impeachment video, sobering and undeniable in its impact, politics doesn’t seem to be the point. The point — the “how” of it, as Ebert said — is what happens when people are sold a faulty idea of rightful ownership. And then they act on it, in part because the movie they just saw told them to.