GET ME ROGER STONE Review
Directors: Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro, and Morgan Pehme
It seems right to start a review of a documentary about the 2015-16 election by talking about memes. One of my favorite meme pages on Facebook is called Slow Heavy Metal Music Playing. The premise of the page is idiotically simple: take slightly unnerving photos and ratchet them up to a whole other level by adding the caption “(slow heavy metal music playing)”. It’s funny when you apply it to pictures of cats, but it’s shockingly effective when you apply it to images from the Trump presidency.
You see, if I were to select the soundtrack to the most recent election cycle, it would be entirely doom and black metal. Hours and hours of listening to Sleep, Thou, and Sunn 0))) might just start to encapsulate the feeling of watching the entire political establishment collapse in on itself as a reality TV star seized total control of the spectacle of the 24-hour news cycle. Where the 2004 election might have been spurred on by Green Day’s AMERICAN IDIOT, this most recent election can only be articulated through the dread-inducing, soul-crushing guitars of drone-doom. Of all the villains to emerge out of the Trump clown car over the past year, few have been as shadowy and openly vile as Roger Stone.
GET ME ROGER STONE is a Netflix documentary hot off the trail of one of the messiest elections in American history, directed by Dylan Bank and Daniel DiMauro. Its focus is on the career of life-long Republican operative Roger Stone, and how his estrangement from the party establishment led him to fanatically supporting the campaign of Donald Trump, and, if the documentary is to be believed, the lynchpin of Trump’s success.
Stone is no ordinary Republican, as Bank and DiMauro go to great lengths to demonstrate. He’s a cold-blooded strategist and provocateur extraordinaire. He’s so media-savvy he seems able to flout all the common rules of news decorum. He’s equally comfortable in a $10,000 pinstripe suit as he is in a T-shirt of Bill Clinton emblazoned with the word “rape.” Stone has managed to largely stay off the radar of average Americans, but when his life story is examined, you start seeing him in the background of seemingly every major political event in the Republican party since Watergate. Perhaps most disturbing is learning that he was directly responsible for the development of Super PACs as we understand them today, and made a private fortune as a lobbyist to the highest bidder (including to brutal dictatorships). Comparisons to Forest Gump and Machiavelli abound equally throughout the documentary, and mostly, they seem to fit. Really, though, if you want to understand Roger Stone, you just need to see his Nixon tattoo.
Truly the face of the Republican party in 2017
Where ROGER STONE succeeds is in the interviews with the various journalists who have covered him over the years. “Roger understands the dark heart of the media, even better than we understand ourselves at times,” says CNN pundit and New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin. Many reporters and academics alike seem to have a perverse fascination with Roger; they’re contemptuous of him to varying degrees, but they also want to make sense of the dark art of how he manages the perfect media spin time and time again. After a sex scandal made Stone unsavory for the mainstream American Right, Stone managed to keep himself relevant by perfectly doling out doses of conspiracy theories on FOX News and other right wing outlets. He would be fact checked (eventually), and his claims would be dismissed (eventually) but only after he had made his splash and forwarded whatever agenda he was pushing. In this way, Band and DiMauro demonstrate that Stone was an innovator of what would become a cornerstone of the Trump campaign: alternative facts.
Just two rational men engaged in a rational conversation
Where DiMauro and Band fail, however, is to inject any editorial voice into the documentary. I understand that by the nature of the type of documentary they were making, they couldn’t sit Stone down for an Errol Morris-style interview for hours, until Stone eventually exposes some raw part of himself, but they certainly could have done more to show us Stone going about his day-to-day life during the election. Consider how many great moments in WEINER happened simply because Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg kept the cameras running, letting Anthony dig his own grave. True, DiMauro and Band were covering a much more media-savvy man than Anthony Weiner, but even so, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that great moments that exposed Roger Stone The Man were left on the cutting room floor in favor of showing us more of Roger Stone The Villain.
Furthermore, the doc is far too focused on demonstrating Stone’s impact on the Trump campaign to consider the other factors that also created the perfect storm for his candidacy. Heading into the 2016 election, the Republican party was a splintered mess with no clear leader, creating the ideal arena for Trump to dominate. What’s more, I am sure many liberal viewers will watch this documentary in horror, then shrug by the end of it, saying, “He was just too powerful, there was nothing we could have done.” The truth is, there is so much the Democrats could have done to turn the election more in their favor, from not forcing Bernie Sanders out of the race, to more effectively campaigning in the working class regions that ultimately swung the election towards Trump. The problem with the narrative DiMauro and Band push is that it offers no path forward; in the world of GET ME ROGER STONE, the media is malleable, our political process is irreparably broken, and the evil bastards like Stone have already won. They literally let Stone get the final word in: “I revel in your hatred, because if I weren’t effective, you wouldn’t hate me.”
ROGER STONE should be sobering viewing for anyone still suffering under the delusion that dumb luck, dumber voters, and collusion with the Russians was the only way Trump won the presidency. The story of Stone is the story of the dirty back alley deals that have greased the wheels of American politics for decades. Donald Trump’s candidacy did not emerge from a vacuum, Roger Stone and his ilk shaped the world for Trump to inhabit. It’s a grim reality to face, but it is my sincere hope that the viewers of GET ME ROGER STONE do not spend much more time wallowing in despair. Our own apathy towards following political news, our unwillingness to participate in smaller elections, our casual dismissal of “the fly over states” is what allowed this current administration to form. Our response cannot be a nihilistic shrug, now is not the time to say it’s already too late. Now that an enemy like Stone has been identified, he can be vanquished. If you’re going to watch GET ME ROGER STONE, remember one of the rules Stone himself lives by: “past is fucking prologue.” The future is unwritten, make sure the future is yours, not Stone’s.