When Michael Moore released his anti-Trump screed Fahrenheit 11/9, in 2018, I was still in a mood of electoral shellshock. I was very much seeking an answer to the question the director posed in voice-over at the beginning of the film: “How the f— did this happen?”
It’s amazing how time has made armchair pundits out of all of us. Hindsight being what it is, Trump’s election seems not unthinkable but inevitable, the final thunderbolt in a perfect storm of factors that led enough “forgotten men” in a handful of swing states to roll the dice on a xenophobic troll.
Now, another high-profile agitprop documentary about the president has been dropped into the chasm of a divided America, hoping against hope that it reaches that elusive subspecies of Homo sapiens that we hear so much about every four years: the undecided voter.
The world in which Dan Partland’s directorial debut Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump operates is already a world away from Moore’s postmortem. It is not a cinematic aloe bath for burned liberals but a persuasive and actionable account of Trump’s three-and-a-half years of gaslighting and abuses of power, stemming from his unchecked malignant narcissism.
The timing for its release could not be more perfect: Snippets from Partland’s interview with George Conway, who recounts his personal experiences with Trump’s racism, have been making the rounds in political media, and now, having opened in Virtual Cinemas, it serves as a potent counterprogram — a reality check — to the Orwellian revisionism of the Republican National Convention.
And yet, Unfit is not a partisan film, per se. Importantly, Partland’s sources of information are not Democratic members of Congress, leftist talk-show hosts or seasoned James Carville types with obvious agendas. Instead, we hear from former Republicans now bereft of a party, like former Trump Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, Lincoln Project co-founder Conway, and Bill Kristol, a dinosaur of cerebral conservatism turned tongue-clicking Trump critic. Rick Reilly, the sportswriter whose book Commander in Cheat draws connections between Trump’s dishonesty on the links and his malfeasance in the Oval Office, offers lively accounts of the president’s most picayune deceptions.
Mostly, though, the film’s talking heads are culled from academia — unfamiliar, impeccably credentialed psychologists and historians and experts on fascism without ideological axes to grind, but who can see the writing on the wall: Donald Trump’s sociopathic pathologies and lack of empathy and remorse are turning Americans against their fellow man, are pummeling a beacon of democracy into a banana republic, and are contributing to a global rise in autocracy.
Partland’s keenly edited indictment allows his subjects’ opinions and focus areas to shape the sweeping narrative, bolstered by well-chosen archive clips from Trump’s pre-political appearances on Howard Stern and The Late Show (observes David Letterman, about the young Trump: “It seems that you either love him or hate him”). One historian likens Trump to Mussolini, who rode into office with just 20 percent support from the electorate, and who shared our president’s penchant for, among other things, pardoning his criminal henchmen.
Another plays the Hitler card, suggesting that immigrants are to Trump what Jews were to the Fuhrer. We hear grave warnings about a mentally unwell president in charge of the nuclear codes, and an understanding of the appeal of the strongman drawn from an observation of chimpanzee behavior in the wild. Even high-information voters will learn things from this grim picture.
Much of this movie, of course, was shot prior to the coronavirus outbreak, and Partland stumbles by rushing last-minute media coverage about the virus into his third act. It’s the most inelegant portion of Unfit. Since he didn’t interview his sources post-COVID, he fishes through his footage for evergreen diagnoses of Trump’s moral, ethical and professional failures, slaps their voices over shots of the president’s fumbling response to the outbreak and the short-lived stock market tumble, and hopes they stick.
I happen to believe that focusing on the virus to attack Trump is a losing argument heading into this election: He will gain more votes as a perceived beleaguered victim of forces beyond his control than he will lose them as an incompetent peddler of quack remedies. But that’s beside the point in a film review. Shoehorning current events into a narrative that relies on long views and sober historicism is simply formally awkward.
As activist docs often do, this one ends with gentle guitar music and a brief call for solutions, from voting to peaceful protests. It barely does justice to the bite and urgency of the four-alarm fire that preceded them.
The question of whom this movie is for will determine its impact. It certainly is not for me; if you’ve read this far, you know my mind was made up before watching it. It is also not for Trump’s staunch tribalists, who have never been moved by inconvenient facts, and will surely not change their opinions based on the insights of tweedy academics. It seems most designed to sway that infinitesimal sliver of voters for whom names like Bill Kristol still hold some influence. In the game of swing-states inches that is the 2020 election, that just might be enough.
UNFIT: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF DONALD TRUMP. Director: Dan Partland; Distributor: Dark Star Pictures; Not Rated; Now showing in select Virtual Cinemas, and Sept. 1 on streaming platforms